Plutonium Found in N.Y.’s Water Supply : Low-Level Contaminant Tied to Demand for Goetz Case Dismissal

United Press International

Plutonium was discovered in New York City’s drinking water after the city received an anonymous letter threatening to contaminate the water supply if charges against accused subway gunman Bernhard H. Goetz were not dropped, officials said Friday.

Mayor Edward I. Koch and Health Commissioner Dr. David Sencer announced the contamination at a City Hall news conference but urged the public not to panic over the plutonium in the water, which they called safe for human consumption.

Cancer-Causing Agent

Plutonium is a radioactive, cancer-causing substance used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.


Sencer said the contamination amounted to thousands of times below that used by the Environmental Protection Agency when it sets standards for the protection of the nation’s water supply.

Koch said that the plutonium was detected in late May, after the city received a letter from someone threatening to contaminate the water supply if charges against Goetz were not dropped. Goetz is charged with shooting four youths he said tried to rob him on a subway train last Dec. 22.

“We deplore an attempt to right a wrong by this dastardly act,” Goetz’s attorney, Barry Slotnick, said.

The mayor said that city officials chose to announce the contamination Friday after learning that a report on it would appear in a Pennsylvania newspaper.

Koch said that the case was being investigated by the FBI and other law enforcement officials but that it was not known how the plutonium entered the water supply.

Sencer said that the amount of plutonium measured in the water--21 femtocuries per liter--was insignificant and only increased the odds of a person being stricken with cancer by two more chances per 1 billion.

“An expert group, at my request, reviewed the available information on the possible contamination of the New York City drinking water supply system with plutonium,” Sencer said.

He said that the group used the “worst-case approach” to determine the danger of the contamination and found no significant threat to New York City’s 7 million residents.

Sheldon Myers, head of the EPA Office of Radiation, said that he would have no qualms about drinking New York City’s tap water.

“Plutonium is relatively insoluble in drinking water. If someone dropped it in, it would sink to the bottom,” he said. “If somehow or another you ingested plutonium, it is a cancer agent. But I don’t see how it would get into the water supply.”