11/12/2010 04:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Dead and the Living

Visitors to the Office of New York City's Chief Medical Examiner are greeted by a long string of Latin words mounted on the lobby wall. Translated, the words mean "Let laughter and conversation cease. This is the place where the dead come to nourish the living."

There's nothing ghoulish about it. The autopsy is considered the foundation of all medicine, and thousands of the procedures, which can take from two to four hours each, are performed in the medical examiner's office every year.

The pathologists who conduct those autopsies fill the role of medical detective, looking for clues to how an individual died, and perhaps why. Of course, these are critical questions in a criminal investigation, but they also have profound meaning for the red-eyed people who sit in that lobby twisting tissues to pieces as they wait for closure and answers that assuage the guilt of actions taken, or avoided.

The main sponsors of the James Zadroga bill in Congress are now pushing for federal health officials to produce a set of uniform autopsy guidelines that can be used by pathologists all over the country to help determine whether exposure to the toxic dust clouds at ground zero caused or contributed to the deaths of people who worked there.

Such guidelines, according to the officials, "would help family members of responders and survivors as well as the medical and scientific community wanting to better understand what effect WTC exposures had on responders and survivors who had just died."

This is a sensitive issue, to say the least, and the hope is that formal guidelines would make clearer the extent of the disaster caused by working in the clouds of dust that rose up after the world trade center was attacked. This is a plea for medicine and science to step in.

But in the nine years since the attacks, we've seen science willfully distorted or simply ignored when its conclusions were not what was expected. One of the arguments being used now to press for the autopsy guidelines is that a New York State Health Department survey has determined that 836 ground zero responders have died, and advocates know of even more. Uniform autopsy guidelines, they assert, would bring the devastating total far higher.

In truth, the Health Department survey simply counts the number of deaths from all causes, and so far has not yet reached any conclusions about how many can be reasonably linked to 9/11. This has been pointed out many times, but advocates of the Zadroga bill, as well as the tabloid press, repeatedly ignore the truth which, of course, is the ultimate goal. Or should be.

Ironically, a few years ago Dr. John Howard, head of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the national 9/11 health coordinator, attempted to draw up uniform autopsy guidelines. He consulted with top forensic experts, including Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, New York City's veteran chief medical examiner who determined, "with certainty beyond doubt," that Det. James Zadroga, after who the huge compensation bill is named, did not die from exposure to ground zero dust. Before any standards could be drawn up, the plug was pulled on the whole process. The formal reason given was that the results of such autopsied could be misused in lawsuits that ground zero workers filed.

The best that Dr. Howard could do was to provide financial help for the New York State Health Department to set up a registry of deaths among ground zero workers. Today, final action on the Zadroga bill is pending, while nearly 10,000 ground zero workers are making final decisions about whether to settle their cases against the city. And that same death registry is being erroneously cited to make the argument for establishing the autopsy guidelines for which the registry was substituted years ago.

So yes, certainly, let's have uniform guidelines. And then cease all distortions. Let science nourish the truth.