New Delhi orders construction halt as pollution levels soar

NEW DELHI — New Delhi officials have ordered a two-day halt to construction in an attempt to reduce choking pollution that has cloaked the city in smog and dust.

The government's Central Pollution Control Board rated the city's air quality Friday as "severe" — the worst possible category — for the fourth day in a row.

New Delhi's level of PM2.5, tiny particulate matter that can dangerously clog lungs, exceeded 170 Friday morning, more than six times higher than the World Health Organization considers safe.

The order to halt construction, which was issued Thursday night, came amid days of winds that have carried dirt and dust across northern India, causing pollution to spike in numerous cities and forcing dozens of flight cancellations. The city is also trying to lower the amount of dirt in the air by sprinkling water in many neighborhoods.

"It is quite a stunning phenomenon that is happening right now," said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director of the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment. "If you look at the satellite picture today, you will see a swathe of dust swirl that has kind of engulfed the entire region."

"As it begins to move in the urban environment, the dust gathers and accumulates all the other toxic substances that are coming from the vehicles, from the industry, from power plants, and it becomes a toxic dust and that's what we are breathing today," she said.

The New Delhi government has made scattered attempts in recent years to try to control worsening air pollution, including stricter emission norms for cars and a tax on diesel-fueled trucks entering the city. But experts say there is little that can be accomplished without concerted national efforts, and pollution has only gotten worse.

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