Lifestyle & Belief

Mexico: Cobalt responders are safe from radiation


An isotope container of cobalt-60.



Editor's note: On Friday, reports emerged that a teenager and a young man have been hospitalized with radiation symptoms in Hidalgo state, Mexico, where stolen radioactive material was recovered.

MEXICO CITY — Mexican nuclear safety officials spent Thursday carefully repackaging a potentially lethal handful of stolen cobalt-60 from the edge of the small town where it was found after a panicked 60-hour search.

Officials recovered the radioactive material Wednesday afternoon in Hueypoxtla, a farm town about 25 miles north of Mexico City. The cobalt apparently had been abandoned by carjackers who had taken it along with the truck transporting it.

Mexican nuclear safety experts repeatedly had warned that those handling or standing near the unprotected material for even a few minutes faced all but certain death.

But medical exams found no contamination in either the local police who responded to the truck's discovery or a family that apparently had handled the cobalt in hopes of selling it for scrap, a Hueypoxtla official told GlobalPost.

“The police who first responded to the call were checked and are clean. Even the man who was dragging the [cobalt’s] container was found to be clean,” Nestor Varela, an aide to Hueypoxtla’s mayor, said.

More from GlobalPost: Mexico recovers stolen radioactive material outside box

Mexico’s attorney general's office declined to comment on reports that a man, who the Mexican press named and identified as a Hueypoxtla resident, has been detained for questioning by federal police.

Soldiers and federal police have completely sealed access to a square block area closest to the house where the cobalt was recovered, Varela said. Only residents can access a larger area of about a half square mile around the site.

“The house is at the last on its street, it's practically in the fields,” Varela said.

Briefed by Mexican experts at the recovery site, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement, though the cobalt seems to have been removed from its protective container, “there is no indication that it has been damaged or broken up and no sign of contamination to the area.”

While human exposure to unprotected cobalt-60 lasting from a few minutes to an hour “would probably be fatal,” the United Nations agency said, “the general public is safe and will remain safe.”

A person contaminated by radiation poisoning can't infect others, the agency noted.

The cobalt-60 pellets in question weigh scarcely 1 ½ ounces, Juan Eibenschutz, director general of Mexico’s Nuclear Security and Safeguards Commission, told Milenio television Wednesday. They were encased in a protective box that had been removed from an obsolete medical device used to treat cancers.

The cobalt-60 was stolen when armed thieves hijacked the truck transporting it to a nuclear waste facility on the far outskirts of the Mexican capital.

After arriving in the area shortly after midnight Monday, following a four-day journey from the government hospital in Tijuana, on the California border, the driver told officials he was resting at a truck stop until the storage facility opened in the morning.

The truck, owned by a private transportation company, had no tracking device installed as required by government regulation, officials said.

“The driver also lacked common sense because he decided to park along a highway so he could sleep,” Mardonio Jimenez, a senior official at the nuclear security commission, told The Associated Press. State officials have also noted the area where the truck was stolen is known for such hijackings.

The theft set off alarms in Mexico and at the International Atomic Energy Agency in part because cobalt-60 can used to make a so-called dirty bomb.

Mexico has been awash in criminal violence, including in the area where the truck and cobalt were stolen. Several tiny guerrilla groups operate in the country as well.

But Mexican officials quickly announced they believed the theft was by common criminals clueless of what they had stolen. The officials repeatedly warned of the cobalt-60’s lethality, saying they hoped the thieves wouldn’t try to sell it for scrap.

That the truck and cargo were abandoned in Huepoxtla, about 20 miles from where they were snatched, may validate the strategy.

Obama admnistration officials never believed the missing cobalt-60 posed a threat to the United States, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday.

“Our national security team monitored that situation involving the stolen vehicle and medical equipment very closely yesterday," Carney said

"Throughout the day, we were in close touch with Mexican officials.”