Health & Medicine

Mexico recovers stolen radioactive material outside box



An isotope container of cobalt-60.



MEXICO CITY — Mexican police Wednesday recovered a potentially lethal load of radioactive cobalt-60 just a few miles from where it had been stolen more than two days earlier.

Armed carjackers had made off with the cobalt-60 stored in a sealed container the size of a car battery inside a truck parked at a highway truck stop on the northeastern edge of Mexico City.

The small container holding the cobalt, installed in a medical device used to treat cancer, was opened when officials found it.

They then recovered the radioactive material about a half mile from the truck, according to Juan Eibenschutz, director of Mexico's National Commision for Nuclear Security and Safeguards.

Officials said the unidentified thieves face serious danger, potentially death, from contact with the "highly dangerous" radioactive material. But the authorities explained there is no public health risk.

GlobalPost explainer: What is cobalt-60?

Soldiers and police cordoned off a quarter-mile perimeter around the site of the recovery, he said, adding that anyone outside the cordon would avoid exposure to the harmful material.

Used since the 1950s to treat cancers, cobalt-60 can prove fatal to people exposed to it in an uncontrolled manner for even a few minutes.

It's also considered a possible ingredient in so-called dirty bombs, which disperse radioactive material through detonation of conventional explosives. Experts say such bombs are more terror inducing than lethally effective.

Mexico has suffered widespread gangster violence in the past seven years, killing an estimated 80,000. A handful of Mexico's more violent gangs, including La Familia and the Zetas, operate in the working-class outskirts of the capital. Small and ineffective guerrilla groups in the past have been active in several southern states and Mexico City.

Mexican officials in interviews with GlobalPost earlier Wednesday expressed confidence that the Volkswagen truck, not the cobalt, was the thieves' target.

The cobalt-bearing device was being transferred by a private trucking company from a government hospital in Tijuana, on the California border, to a disposal facility for radioactive material near Mexico City. The driver told officials he was catching a nap when he and an assistant were assaulted.

“We think these were common thieves. The danger is they have no idea what they are dealing with,” Miguel Garcia, assistant secretary of civil protection in Hidalgo, the state where the truck was stolen, said in a telephone interview.

Neither Jimenez nor anyone else in his office could be reached for comment following the truck's recovery. But Al Jazeera, quoting an unidentified official, said Mexican authorities had requested international help to recover the radioactive material.

Worried Mexican officials had launched a search by local, state and federal security forces. National media reports had issued detailed descriptions of the truck and its cargo in hopes the thieves would realize the danger it posed.

The Mexican nuclear safety commission reported the theft to the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which issued its own alert Wednesday.

"At the time the truck was stolen, the source was properly shielded. However, the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged," the IAEA said in a statement.

Mexican officials this week had alerted scrap yards in Mexico City and a half dozen nearby states to be on the lookout for the radiation therapy device or the cobalt’s container.

This incident comes exactly three decades after cobalt-60 sold as scrap by clueless cancer clinic workers in the border city of Ciudad Juarez contaminated thousands of tons of steel used for construction in northern Mexico and the southern United States.

That December 1983 incident was discovered months later when sensors detected some of the radioactive steel being used in construction at the US research facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Metal made from the scrapped cobalt later was found in chairs and table legs, and some 17,000 buildings across Mexico, half of which were torn down. More than 15,000 tons of the contaminated steel remains buried at a site in the northern Mexico desert.

Another incident occurred in Brazil in 1987 in which a substance similar to cobalt-60 was collected for scrap from a closed cancer clinic, and handled by unaware residents. More than 80 houses were found to be contaminated by the material, cesium-137, dozens of people suffered radiation burns and four eventually died.

Jimenez, the senior nuclear safety official, told a television interview that the people who had removed the cobalt from its container could faced severe illness at best.

"These people are going to end up in the hospital and we'll wait for them there," he said. “Even with medical attention, a death or deaths is certain."