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Study says air toxic weeks after 9/11

Trade center fires spewed gases like 'chemical factory'

NEW YORK -- The burning ruins of the World Trade Center spewed toxic gases "like a chemical factory" for at least six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks despite government assurances the air was safe, according to a study released yesterday.

The gases of toxic metals, acids, and organics could penetrate deeply into the lungs of workers at ground zero, said the study by scientists at the University of California at Davis and released at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in New York.

Lead study author Thomas Cahill, a professor of physics and engineering, said conditions would have been "brutal" for workers at ground zero without respirators and slightly less so for those working or living in adjacent buildings.

"The debris pile acted like a chemical factory," Cahill said. "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 comes amid questions about air quality at ground zero and what the public was told by the government.

Last month, an internal report by the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general, Nikki Tinsley, said the White House pressured the agency to make premature statements that the air was safe to breathe.

The EPA issued an air quality statement on Sept. 18, 2001, even though it "did not have sufficient data and analyses to make the statement," the report said.

The White House "convinced the EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones," Tinsley said. Among the information withheld was the potential health hazards of breathing asbestos, lead, concrete, and pulverized glass, the report said.

New York leaders, including Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, have called on the Justice Department to investigate.

The EPA's acting administrator, Marianne Horinko, has defended the agency, saying it used the best information it had available.

According to the newly-released UC-Davis study, after the towers collapsed, tons of concrete, glass, furniture, carpets, insulation, computers, and papers burned until Dec. 19, 2001.

Some elements of the debris combined with organic matter and chlorine from papers and plastics and escaped to the surface as metal-rich gases that either burned or chemically decomposed into very fine particles that could easily penetrate deep into human lungs, it said.

Specifically, the study said samples from ground zero found four types of particles listed by the EPA as likely to harm human health: fine metals that can damage lungs, sulfuric acid that attacks lung cells, fine undissolvable particles of glass that can travel through the lungs to the bloodstream and heart, and high-temperature carcinogenic organic matter. Measurements made at ground zero in May 2002, months after the fires were out, showed levels of nearly all the fine components had declined more than 90 percent, the study said.

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