Five adults and one teenager are being treated at a Pachuca, Mexico, hospital for possible radiation poisoning, state news reported Friday, one day after authorities said they'd recovered all the radioactive material taken from a stolen truck.
All six had apparently come into contact with cobalt-60 about 12 hours after the truck containing the radioactive material and medical equipment was stolen Monday in Tepojaco, according to Hidalgo state health official Jose Antonio Copca, according to state-run Notimex.
They had contact with the medical equipment container containing the cobalt-60 but not directly with the material itself, Copca said. Mexico's National Civil Protection Office has said cobalt-60 is highly radioactive but is a health risk only to those directly exposed to it.
News of their hospitalizations first surfaced on Twitter.
Mexican authorities announced this week they'd recovered all the radioactive material, if not those who stole it.
The missing vehicle, along with most of the radioactive element used for medical purposes, was found in a remote area about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from where it was taken. All of the radioactive material had been accounted for in that same area early Thursday evening.
Mexican authorities told the International Atomic Energy Agency that the truck, which was transporting the material from a hospital in Tijuana to a radioactive waste storage center, was stolen Monday. Tepojaco is about 55 kilometers north of Mexico City and 48 kilometers from Pachuca, where the vehicle was found.
The thieves are still on the loose, though authorities expect they could turn up at a clinic with symptoms of radiation exposure.
The container holding cobalt was found about a kilometer (half a mile) from the truck and had been opened, said Juan Eibenschutz Hartman, head of Mexico's National Commission for Nuclear Security and Safeguards.
There was less than 40 grams (1.4 ounces) of the hazardous material inside the capsule.
Authorities are guarding the area and have set up a 500-meter (550-yard) perimeter around it near the city of Hueypoxtla, Eibenschutz said. They are evaluating whether any residents were exposed, but none has tested positive for radiation, according to the civil protection office.
Cleaning up the area could take weeks, he said, because they don't have robotic equipment they would need to quickly collect the dangerous cobalt. They're coming up with a plan and considering asking for help from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United States or Canada.
An early theory is that the thieves were unaware of what exactly they had taken.
"At the time the truck was stolen, the source was properly shielded," the IAEA said. "However, the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged."
But Eibenschutz said the truck wasn't properly set up to transport the radioactive material, since it didn't have a GPS for tracking or other necessary equipment.
Uses for cobalt-60
Cobalt-60 is used in radiotherapy and in industrial tools such as leveling devices and thickness gauges. Large sources of cobalt-60 are used to sterilize certain foods, as the gamma rays kill bacteria but don't damage the product, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
If released into the environment, the radioactive material can harm people.
And experts consider cobalt-60 one of the "candidates" for making dirty bombs.
Bombs made with cobalt-60 "pose a threat mainly because even a fraction of a gram emits a huge number of high-energy gamma rays; such material is harmful whether outside or inside the body," according to a 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service.
In a speech last year, the IAEA director warned that such a dirty bomb "detonated in a major city could cause mass panic, as well as serious economic and environmental consequences."
Preliminary information suggests that the thieves did not know what the truck's cargo was when they stole it, said Jaime Aguirre Gomez, deputy director of radiological security at the National Commission for Nuclear Security and Safeguards.
The shielding that protects the cobalt-60 is designed so that the radioactive source is difficult to extract, Aguirre said. The casing is designed not to be opened or perforated easily.
The truck and its cargo went missing early Monday after the driver of the white 2007 Volkswagen truck and an assistant had stopped to rest at a gas station, local prosecutor Marcos Morales said.
About 1 a.m. Monday, a man armed with a handgun knocked on the passenger window. When the passenger rolled down his window, the gunman demanded the keys to the vehicle, Morales said.
Both the driver and his assistant were taken to an empty lot where they were bound and told not to move. They heard one of the assailants use a walkie-talkie type device or phone to tell someone, "It's done," Morales said.
Mexico alerted the IAEA to the theft, following international
protocol, Aguirre said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is assisting with the investigation into the stolen truck, Mexican authorities said.
The U.S. government has sensors at border crossings and sea ports to prevent radioactive materials from entering the country. This includes large stationary sensors designed to scan vehicles going through land border crossings as well as pager-size devices carried by agents.
Some of this equipment is sensitive enough that it has been set off by people who had recently undergone radiation therapy, according to a U.S. law-enforcement source.
According to the Congressional Research Service report, in Thailand in 2000, a disused cobalt-60 source was stored outdoors and bought by two scrap collectors, who took it to a junkyard where it was cut open.
Some workers suffered burn-like injuries, and eventually three people died and seven others suffered radiation injuries, the report says. Nearly 2,000 others who lived nearby were exposed to radiation.