After a two-day hunt, a stolen truck containing the lethal radioactive material cobalt 60 was found in the rural Mexican town of Hueypoxtla. Mexican nuclear safety authorities suspect the carjackers likely did not know they were absconding with the deadly material, but will probably pay for it with their lives. The cobalt 60 had been removed from its casing, suggesting that the perpetrators were exposed to high doses of radiation.
Is the public at risk of being exposed?
Fortunately, the area where the material was found isn’t densely populated, and Juan Eibenschultz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, told the Associated Press that the cobalt 60 did not pose a threat to nearby residents in the agricultural town and that no evacuation was necessary.
What happens when you are exposed to cobalt 60?
Externally, exposure to the gamma radiation emitted by cobalt 60 can cause burns and radiation sickness. Most of the material that is absorbed by the body is eliminated in the feces, but what remains can embed in tissues such as the liver, kidneys and bones, where it can cause cancer. Because the perpetrators were probably not protected when the opened the container, they likely received high doses of radiation that would be fatal within days.
Where did the cobalt 60 come from?
The canister was being transported from a hospital in Tijuana to a storage facility. In the medical field, the radioactive substance is use to treat inoperable tumors such as brain lesions that are difficult to access via surgery.
It has industrial applications as well. Increasingly, cobalt 60 is used to irradiate spices to remove pathogens such as bacteria; no traces of radioactive material remains after the sterilization. It is also used in leveling devices and gauges.