updated 10/25/2007 10:09:32 AM ET 2007-10-25T14:09:32

New doubts about what killed a New York City police officer who worked in the ruins of the World Trade Center now threaten the yearslong effort to create a treatment program for other ailing Sept. 11 workers.

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Detective James Zadroga became a symbol for that effort last year, when a New Jersey autopsy concluded that he died at age 34 as a result of toxic dust in his lungs from working at the site of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., co-sponsored a Sept. 11 bill named after Zadroga, and gave a speech on the Senate floor hailing him as "the kind of detective they make TV shows about."

Zadroga's story has just taken a stunning plot twist.

A question of foreign matter
The decorated detective worked 450 hours on the smoking pile. Yet the New York City Medical Examiner, Charles Hirsch, concluded last week that the foreign matter found in Zadroga's lungs definitely - according to him - did not come from dust.

According to many medical experts, an alternate cause for foreign matter in the lungs is intravenous drug use - often from grinding up pills and injecting them rather than taking them orally as intended. Zadroga's family acknowledges he was taking a potent mixture of drugs to treat his illness - some of them intravenously - but says they were all prescribed by doctors.

Though neither the medical examiner nor the Zadroga family spelled out the details of the new findings, the conclusion that Zadroga did not die from dust at the disaster site will mean extra headaches for lawmakers trying to get the federal government to pay billions of dollars for decades of treatment.

In her speech on the Senate floor about Zadroga, Clinton said without such a bill, "we're going to read about the death and disability of thousands and thousands of our bravest, most courageous men and women." Video: Health woes for Ground Zero workers

Previous problems
Clinton and New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Vito Fossella and Jerrold Nadler seized on Zadroga and the case of another dead police officer, Cesar Borja, to highlight their cause, yet both cases led to sudden surprises.

Borja died in January, as his son was Clinton's guest in Washington to attend the State of the Union address. The son also met with President Bush to personally make the case for sick ground zero workers.

After those high-profile appearances, it turned out Borja's work records showed he had not worked near the World Trade Center until about three months after the attacks, and was assigned to traffic and security posts on the streets around the site.

At the time, Clinton insisted none of those revelations changed her view of the Borja case.

Asked Wednesday if the latest findings changed Clinton's view of the Zadroga case, her spokesman Philippe Reines did not say, but insisted she is still committed to the cause and will work with Congress and local officials "to develop a long-term solution and meet our obligation to those who risked their health to help others."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday: "Every death of course is tragic ... It's not going to curtail our efforts, even if Detective Zadroga was not a victim."

As to whether lawmakers will take Zadroga's name off the bill, Schumer said "that's obviously something we'd want to look into."

Maloney, Fossella and Nadler issued a joint statement Wednesday saying they do not intend to take Zadroga's name off the bill, adding: "A difference of opinion exists between doctors over the exact cause of Detective Zadroga's death, but what is not in dispute is that thousands of men and women like him became sick as a result of their service at ground zero."

The lawyer for the Zadroga family, Michael Barasch, said Wednesday they still firmly believe he died from working at the World Trade Center and " to categorically state for the record that his son only took prescribed drug medication. He was on some 12 to 14 drugs when he died ... all by prescription. If drugs did, in fact, contribute to his death, they were the drugs that he had to take in order to keep living because of the toxic exposure at the World Trade Center."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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