Image: James Zadroga
AP file
The New York City medical examiner has determined that retired police detective James Zadroga's death was caused by a misuse of prescription pills, not dust from ground zero.
updated 10/25/2007 2:44:34 PM ET 2007-10-25T18:44:34

The city's medical examiner concluded that the misuse of pills, not the dust of ground zero, caused the lung disease that killed a man who became a nationally known example of post-Sept. 11 illness, the examiner's spokeswoman confirmed Thursday.

Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch concluded that retired police detective James Zadroga got the lung disease that killed him by injecting ground-up pills into his bloodstream, leaving traces of the pills in the lung tissue, spokeswoman Ellen Borakove told The Associated Press.

"It is our opinion that that material entered his body via the bloodstream and not via the airways," she said.

She confirmed Hirsch's findings after Zadroga's father and lawyer said Hirsch told them Zadroga's death was caused by the misuse of prescription drugs — not the more than 450 hours he spent toiling at the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11 attacks.

A New Jersey medical examiner had ruled last year that Zadroga died from inhaling toxic ground zero dust, but the family asked Hirsch for a second opinion — and a ruling that would add Zadroga to the official Sept. 11 victims' list.

Last week Hirsch wrote a letter to Zadroga's father, Joseph, saying he believed "with certainty beyond doubt" that the dust did not cause his son's death, but Hirsch's conclusions about the real cause were not released by his office until Thursday.

His office did not say what drug or drugs were injected. Joseph Zadroga said the former detective was taking more than a dozen medications when he died, including anti-anxiety medicine and painkillers including OxyContin, but never ground up pills and injected them. He said he kept his son's medication locked in a safe in their New Jersey home and said his son was not capable of taking medicine himself.

"His mother and I were taking care of him," Joseph Zadroga said. "He wasn't ever able to correctly take his medication."

Michael Baden, a pathologist asked by the family to review the case after getting Hirsch's letter, said that slides of James Zadroga's lung tissue showed large glass fibers and other foreign particles that were mostly close to the airways, a sign of material that had been inhaled. He said that if Zadroga had been grinding down pills and injecting them, his autopsy report would have noted scars and needle tracks on his arms.

"You can't make a diagnosis, in my opinion, of intravenous injections of ground-down pills on the basis of these slides," said Baden, the chief forensic pathologist for the New York State police. He has often testified as an expert witness at high-profile trials.

After James Zadroga died in January 2006, bills were named after him in Congress to fund research and treatment for those who became ill after working in the smoking ruins of the trade center.

So far, Hirsch has changed the death certificate of only one person — a woman who died five months after the attacks — saying that exposure to the toxic dust cloud caused or worsened her lung disease.

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