Thieves in Mexico who stole Cobalt 60 likely to die within days from radiation poisoning

The day after a load of stolen radioactive material was found in a field, Mexican authorities had formed a perimeter around the area and were measuring for contamination as they planned the recovery process Thursday.

Federal police and soldiers formed a cordon of several hundred yards around the highly radioactive container of cobalt-60, stolen earlier in the week in a carjacking as the material was being moved from a public hospital n the border town of Tijuana to a storage facility in central Mexico.

The carjackers, who set off international alarm bells by absconding with the material, most likely had no idea what they were stealing and will probably die soon from exposure, Mexican authorities said at the end of a brief national scare.

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.

The cobalt-60 was found, removed from its casing, in a rural area near the town of Hueypoxtla, about 25 miles from where the truck was stolen. Jimenez said he suspected that curiosity got the better of the thieves, and they opened the box. So far the carjackers have not been arrested, but authorities expect they will not live long.

“The people who handled it will have severe problems with radiation,” he said. “They will, without a doubt, die.”

The source that the Tijuana hospital was trying to dispose of, and which was in the stolen truck, contained between 2500 and 3000 curies of activity.

With radiation exposure, it’s the total dose a person receives that determines the health effects. In the U.S., we measure radiation exposure in units called rem. Humans are exposed to about one-third of one rem every year from natural radiation; a whole-body CT scan will give us about 1-2 rem. At a dose of 100 rem, a person will start to feel ill. By the time they’ve received 800 or so rem, they will likely die from the exposure.

With cobalt-60, a single-curie source will give you a dose of a little more than 1 rem in an hour if kept at arm’s length—about a meter away. But a source the size of the one stolen in Mexico will give a dose of more than 2500 rem in the same time and distance.

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