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9/11 autopsy guidelines plan abandoned

Associated Press | November 18, 2006
LARRY McSHANE

An effort to create standard autopsy guidelines that could document a link between toxic air at ground zero and deaths of 9/11 rescue workers has been abandoned by the federal government amid concerns the information collected could be misinterpreted.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in a note posted Friday on its Web site, said the agency "instead will pursue other avenues for documenting long-term health effects from exposure to air contaminants from the World Trade Center disaster."

Outside medical experts who reviewed the plan suggested focusing on monitoring epidemiological patterns of disease in those exposed.

In a Sept. 15 draft, the institute proposed examining specific sections of the lungs and creating a "tissue bank" to preserve certain organs and bodily fluids for later testing.

The institute said reviewers had raised several questions, including concerns that "the draft document could be misinterpreted or misapplied, hindering rather than furthering progress in addressing WTC health concerns."

"This study has many insurmountable barriers to overcome," wrote Dr. David J. Prezant, chief medical officer for the city Fire Department. Prezant, whose review was posted on the Web site, said one of those barriers was the "politics of causality," a reference to pending lawsuits filed against the city by injured workers.

Because autopsy results are often used in civil lawsuits, the results collected by the institute while intended as a scientific study could be used as a trial tool for lawyers and others with an "undeniable self-interest" in the cause of death, Prezant said.

The collapse of the twin towers sent thick plumes of concrete dust, fiberglass, asbestos and lead into the air in lower Manhattan. The tainted air was taken in by thousands of ground zero workers in the weeks after the terrorist attack that killed 2,749 people.

The guidelines were intended to be used nationwide in cases such as the death of New York City police detective James Zadroga, who died last January. Zadroga spent 470 hours working amid the toxic fumes, and fell ill within weeks.

An autopsy found the 34-year-old detective died as a result of ground zero exposure, finding that there was material "consistent with dust" found in his lungs.

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