Code Orange: Sensitive Groups Should Stay Indoors!

In December, I became a father of a beautiful, now 8-month old boy named August.  We call him “Gus.”

As someone whose full-time job at the National Wildlife Federation is to reconnect children with nature, I often joked that I now have my very own case study on this issue within my own family.

Experiencing the Outdoors With My Son

It was tough to get outdoors with Gus in the winter months, but as the weather warmed up we would go for family walks in our downtown neighborhood of Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.

Gus would notice the robins, doves, pigeons and cardinals on the street, reach out the baby-carrier to grab the wet leaves of bushes and trees.  We would occasionally take a longer hike through Rock Creek Park.

In March, we went for a week-long visit to the beach in Florida and then to the Jersey Shore in July, spending hours outdoors every day, often just sitting on the back patio or in the shade on the beach.

We were blown away by how well Gus slept that week and were told by many, “oh, that’s all that fresh air.”  It seems to be a well known fact that kids sleep better when they get time outdoors and fresh air. As a parent, I’ve seen it with my own eyes!

Code Orange Days Impacting Outdoor Time for Kids

Then, this summer, on May 30th, we had our first “Code Orange Air Quality Day.” I’ve heard these alerts in the past, but the warning on the radio that morning advising “sensitive groups, including young children” to stay indoors caught my attention.

The next day was “Code Red,” the warning was stronger.  I called our pediatrician, who advised us to keep Gus inside on Code Orange or Red days, except for the early mornings or a quick trip to get in the car and go somewhere.

At first, this seemed like a hassle, but manageable.  As summer unfolded though, about 1/3 of our days in DC this summer were Code Orange or worse, due to ozone pollution from cars, power plants and other sources.  So much for getting that fresh air!

As I spent my days  encouraging children and families to spend time outdoors through First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Outside initiativeNational Get Outdoors Day and the Great American Backyard Campout, and as President Obama and nearly every Governor proclaimed June as “Great Outdoors Month,” we were ironically keeping our son indoors.

For parents living in urban areas, this may be “old news.”  For me it was a pretty astonishing paradox.  Summertime for me has always been about playing outdoors, exploring, going to camp, and generally having fun outside. We understand that a variety of societal changes have led to childhood moving indoors, but the safety of the air we breathe was not on my list.

Now it is.


EPA Under Pressure to Change Acceptable Ozone Pollution Levels

The Environmental Protection Agency is also considering changing the threshold for how much ozone pollution is acceptable for our lungs. In 2008, during the Bush Administration, the EPA ignored its own scientific report suggesting that the standards were not strong enough due to industry pressure.

Any day now we will likely see revised standards that share the truth with the American people.  According to a poll by the American Lung Association, the American people are hungry for the truth.  Though, after reading this Washington Post article about big business and big oil lobbying against the standard, I’m concerned we may never know which days are safe and which are not.

The only thing worse than my son not going out for 1/3 of the summer would be learning that we’ve been kept in the dark by our government about the true health implications of spending time outdoors during the supposedly “clean air” days…

And don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of days even in urban areas are safe to spend time outdoors – indoor air pollution often makes time outdoors a healthy option!  But that will be the subject of another blog…

I enjoy living in a diverse city where I can walk to the grocery store, church and work, and maintain a low carbon footprint.  For the health of my son Gus, I wonder how long we will be able to do so.  And enough about me!  What about those who don’t have the means to pick up and move where the air is cleaner and safer for their children?

Please share with us “Why You Care about Clean Air” so we can share your perspective with policy makers in Washington.  I hope you will also learn more about policies that reconnect children, youth and families with nature by following me on Twitter @PatrickNWF and visiting