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Six People Admitted To Mexican Hospital With Possible Radiation Exposure

Six people have been admitted to a hospital in central Mexico with potential radiation exposure. Mexican officials believe they could have been contaminated by the radioactive material stolen earlier this week while in transit from a Tijuana hospital to a storage site.

The highly dangerous cobalt-60 was found Wednesday and had been removed from its protective container, likely exposing whoever handled it to potentially deadly levels of radioactivity.

“It’ll be a very painful death, unfortunately,” said Dan Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz, on those exposed to the cobalt-60.

The material was found in central Mexico two and a half days after it was reported missing. It was from a piece of radiation therapy equipment used in a Tijuana hospital and was being transported to a storage site in central Mexico.

The driver carrying the shipment reported that two men held him up at gunpoint while he was parked at a gas station. They stole the truck, along with the radioactive material.

Officials say there’s no indication that the thieves who stole the truck carrying the material knew what they were getting. Still, the incident has sparked concerns over security measures in Mexico and elsewhere when potentially deadly material is in transport.

"It was a horrible event," said Hirsch. "This was a very, very large source of cobalt-60, which is a powerful Gamma emitter. This is a kind of radiation that is very penetrating."

Cobalt-60 and other radioactive material used in hospital equipment and even road construction could, potentially, also be used in building a so-called dirty bomb. That is a conventional explosive capable of dispersing radioactive material over a wide area.

When Mexico first reported the missing shipment of cobalt-60, there was obvious concern that the material could get into the wrong hands.

After the cobalt-60 was found, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a news release in which it said it believed authorities had responded appropriately to the discovery of the missing material.

Mexico’s nuclear regulatory agency has a security cordon around the area where the material was located and is working on recovering it in order to bring it a secure storage facility, according to Mardonio Jimenez Rojas, director of operational supervision at Mexico’s National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.

Jimenez said the company licensed to transport the material, Asesores en Radiaciones, appears to have disregarded several regulations related to transport of hazardous materials.

The truck carrying the cobalt-60 was apparently not properly marked and was not traceable by GPS, Jimenez said.

The cobalt-60 was stolen after the truck driver fell asleep at a gas station in a high-crime area, which some have also said, showed poor judgment.

Asesores en Radiaciones did not respond to request for comment.

Jimenez noted this was the first time Mexico has experienced a theft of such high-level radioactive material.

"The fact that they reported this so rapidly and got the international attention focused on it is indicative of the fact that they've got a pretty good security system which responded rapidly," said George Moore, a resident scientist at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in Monterrey.

And in fact, radioactive material is stolen or lost pretty frequently around the world. The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed more than 600 incidents in the past two decades, according to a 2012 report.

Moore said most thefts of radioactive material happen while it’s in transit. And as is assumed in the Mexico case, it often turns out the thieves just wanted to steal the vehicle.

But Hirsch from UC Santa Cruz finds the lack of security in transporting dangerous material alarming — not just in Mexico, but in the U.S. and around the world.

“There is a bias towards making life easy for the companies that use these materials as opposed to a bias towards trying to prevent their theft," Hirsch said.

He said a type of construction equipment that uses radioactive material is commonly stolen in California.

“Frequently what happens is they’re carried in the back of a pickup truck, someone goes into a fast food restaurant to get lunch, comes back and it’s been stolen. It happens over and over and over again," Hirsch said.

And Hirsch says the penalties levied against companies and individuals for sloppy oversight of their radioactive materials are often meaningless.

“There is at best a slap on the wrist and then someone sends you a letter and says, ‘we’re not happy,'" he said.

Hirsch thinks ultimately we need to phase out commercial use of radioactive materials as much as possible.

Back in Mexico, the country’s nuclear watchdog agency says it will soon open an investigation into the stolen cobalt-60 and to what degree the transport company should be held responsible.

For now, Mexican authorities are focusing on getting the material cleaned up and put into secure storage.

Updated 12/9/2013 at 4:13 p.m.