The ruins of the World Trade Centre burnt "like a chemical factory", spewing out toxic gases for six weeks after it was destroyed in the 11 September attacks, a report released yesterday said.
The contents of the twin towers produced a poisonous cocktail of gases, acids and organic substances that could have penetrated deep into the lungs of workers at ground zero, said the study by scientists at California university.
The revelation will deepen suspicions that authorities played down the threat in the weeks after the attacks to reassure a traumatised public. New York leaders including Senator Hillary Clinton have called on the Justice Department to investigate.
Thomas Cahill, professor of physics and engineering, and the chief author of the study, said: "The debris pile acted like a chemical factory. It cooked together the components and the buildings and their contents, including enormous numbers of computers, and gave off gases of toxic metals, acids and organics for at least six weeks."
The report, released at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in New York, contradicts reassurances by the Environment Protection Agency after the attacks that air quality was acceptable.
Last month, an internal report by Nikki Tinsley, the inspector general at the EPA, said the White House pressed the agency to make premature statements that the air was safe. Ms Tinsley said in her report that the EPA had issued an air quality statement on 18 September 2001, even though it "did not have sufficient data and analyses". Her report added that the White House "convinced the EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones".
But Marianne Horinko, the EPA acting administrator, said the agency used the best information available.
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