NYPD Program To Track Health of September 11 Officers

The New York Sun

NYPD Program To Track Health of September 11 Officers
Staff Reporter of the Sun
August 13, 2007

In the nearly six years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the city's conflict and grief over the health problems faced by those who cleaned up ground zero have often centered on the police officers who stood guard at the site and toiled on the pile.

There was Detective James Zadroga, whose family succeeded in its fight to convince city officials that his death was linked to the toxic dust that swirled above the rubble, and Officer Christopher Hynes, whom the police department denied line-of-duty disability benefits for a lung disease he says he contracted from the dust.

Now, for the first time, the police department is preparing to release its own study examining how the 34,000 officers who worked at the site have fared. Due out in October, the study is part of a ramped up effort by the department to start a monitoring program for police modeled on the twin programs of the fire department and Mount Sinai Hospital, which receive federal funding to track the health of workers and residents.

But like nearly everything surrounding September 11 -- from the location of the anniversary ceremony to the use of ground zero imagery in the presidential campaign of Mayor Giuliani -- the study is already infused with controversy.

Police doctors are seeking federal funding similar to what the existing two programs receive, but their effort has been stymied thus far, in part by accusations from some police unions and others that their research is not objective.

"There's definitely a conflict of interest," the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, Edward Mullins, said. "The people who would be overseeing our health are the same group of people who would be overseeing our disability claims."

One of the authors of the study, the chief surgeon of the NYPD Medical Division, Dr. Eli Kleinman, has been named in a lawsuit by Officer Hynes, who says Dr. Kleinman is refusing to acknowledge that Officer Hynes's rare lung disease, sarcoidosis, was a result of the 111 hours he spent working on the pile. The officer is seeking $1,625 from the department to help him cover medical bills associated with his illness.

Dr. Kleinman, who said he could not comment on the lawsuit, says the study is not meant to serve as evidence to defend the position of the police department or the Bloomberg administration, which has been hesitant to link some illnesses to ground zero.

"There's no conflict of interest," Dr. Kleinman said. "Everybody has the same vested interest here, all New Yorkers."

In an interview at his office in Queens a few days after Officer Hynes filed his lawsuit in June, Dr. Kleinman noted that he has a personal stake in the results of the study.

On an end table near his desk, Dr. Kleinman keeps a framed picture of himself emerging from the cloud of smoke and dust on September 11, 2001; he had arrived at the World Trade Center to treat victims. In the photo, captured by a television news crew, he has broken glasses, a broken left arm, and no shoes.

"It looks white, but it's totally black particulate matter. It's as if you were dropped into a vat of coffee grounds, that's the only way I can explain it," he said, describing the cloud billowing behind him in the photo. "You can no longer breathe. You can't see. I was holding my breath as long as I could."

He compared his role in leading the study to that of the president of the Hair Club for Men: "Not only am I the president, I'm a customer."

He also said he plays only an advisory role in the police department's resolution of line-of-duty disability claims, which pay out about 25% more than normal disability claims. Dr. Kleinman is a consultant to the independent medical board that reviews officers' claims, he said. The medical board makes recommendations to a pension board made up of both union and city officials, which has the final vote the approval or denial of claims. Dr. Kleinman said that in the event of a tie vote by the pension board, he would step in again as an adviser.

So far, about 116 line-of-duty claims by police officers who responded to ground zero have been approved, according to numbers provided by the medical unit. More than 3,000 have yet to be resolved.

Of the nearly 30 studies conducted on ground zero's impact on the health of workers and residents, the NYPD study is the second to look at the health of police officers exclusively.

The other study that focused solely on police officers, led by researchers at Penn State University, showed that about 44% had shortness of breath more than a year later and 43% had the so-called World Trade Center cough.

In 2002, a preliminary study of 600 police officers by the police surgeons showed that 38% were experiencing problems ranging from breathing issues to broken bones to post-traumatic stress syndrome, numbers that Dr. Kleinman said jibe with other research.

He added that the combination of the department's methodology, based on tracking the health records of police officers in a huge database, and the similarity of police officers' lung function to that of the general public, makes the study unique.

Nevertheless, the unions that represent the police say they do not trust the department or its study.

"They're not acknowledging 9/11 claims," Mr. Mullins, a member of the bucket brigade that removed debris, said. "The department is resistant, and I think they're starting to soften up, but I don't think they're there yet."

The biggest police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which is backing the Hynes lawsuit, launched a campaign in its quarterly magazine this year criticizing the medical unit for conflicts of interest. The union has its own online registry to track reports by police officers of illnesses they believe are linked to ground zero. The administrator of the New York State Laborers' Health and Safety Fund, James Melius, said it is unlikely the police department will receive funding from Congress without the backing of the unions. Mr. Melius, who is chairman of the steering committee for the two existing federally funded programs, said that when the police department made the first public pitch for its monitoring program, in meetings with Congress in the spring, he discouraged lawmakers from allocating any of the already limited amount of World Trade Center funding to the police program. He said he believes the police department, which traditionally has not had a medical program as intensive as that of the fire department, is not well equipped to do the monitoring. He added that suspicion among police officers could also undermine its effort.

"There certainly seems to be less trust of the police department medical program than there is of the firefighter program," Mr. Melius said. "It would be very hard, partly because of that distrust, for the police department to start up a program."

Dr. Kleinman said he is not discouraged.

He said of the unions: "They want total control of all medical information, which is self-serving. We want what's best for police officers."