In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, police officer George Wong was assigned to direct traffic around ground zero for many hours. In 2006 Mr. Wong began to feel ill, and was finally diagnosed with gastric cancer, which he died from last week at the age of 48.
Mr. Wong, as well as his family and physician believed that the cancer was caused, at least in part, by his exposure to toxic particles he inhaled during his assignment directing traffic at ground zero. The physician who filled out Mr. Wong’s death certificate, Dr. Lyla Correoso, asserted that belief on that document.
Retired in 2006
Mr. Wong retired from the police force in 2006 and received at that time a regular pension. In 2010, however, his pension was increased to 75% of regular pay from 50% because it was determined at that time that his illness was caused by the toxic substances he was exposed to in the line of duty. The medical board of the police department together with the police pension fund board makes the decision whether an officer’s death is caused while in the line of duty, with serious financial consequences for the officer and his family based on that determination.
The family was surprised when they received a phone call during Mr. Wong’s wake from the New York City medical examiner’s office. The office said that they needed to see Mr. Wong’s body immediately to investigate whether or not he had indeed died from exposure to toxic substances at ground zero.
The family and fellow police officers balked at the suggestion. One of Mr. Wong’s friends who was at the wake, Wellington Chen said, “To treat a hero like this, who died at the call of duty?”
The family refused to allow an autopsy, but the examiner’s office did conduct an external examination of the body and then returned it to the funeral home the next day. Results from the exam have not yet been made public.
The city’s actions, awkward as they may seem, do reflect the difficult and complicated question still plaguing doctors, researchers, police officers and firefighters: How do we define that a death today is the direct result of the terrorist attacks of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001?
Until now the official position of New York City is that cancer has still not been proven to be connected to the toxic dust and other substances that the collapsing towers released into the environment.
James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act
This is also the opinion which has been legislated into the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. This new law, which was passed at the end of last year, is meant to help those injured or made ill by the 9/11 attacks. The law has built into it the requirement that medical and scientific evidence be reviewed from time to time to decide whether a particular cancer or other illness should be added to the list of health conditions that the law will compensate for.
Susan Craig, spokeswoman for the city’s Health Department, where the city’s death certificates are kept, explained that the office had flagged Mr. Wong’s case since the researchers there, “are actively studying” what the relationship is between cancer and the attacks. “Anytime there is something that says World Trade Center on a death certificate, we make sure that we do an examination of the health record or an autopsy” she said.
In addition, Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the city’s medical examiner, explained that her office contacted the family because they believe “it might be in their best interest if we performed an autopsy.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg also defended the medical examiner’s request to examine Mr. Wong’s body, saying that, “When there is a death that the death certificate says is not of natural causes the medical examiner is required by law to go and to perform whatever they think is appropriate.”