Radioactive Cobalt-60, stolen from a hijacked truck in Mexico
, was recovered on Wednesday after being abandoned in a rural area, ending immediate fears of a "dirty bomb." Authorities says the thieves are likely to die from the exposure.
The radioactive material was stolen Tuesday and then recovered about half a mile from the town of Hueypoxtla in central Mexico.
Authorities have yet to locate those responsible for the heist. Investigators believe that the thieves, who apparently stumbled upon the synthetic radioactive isotope, will most likely die or become seriously ill within days if they had direct exposure to the cancer-causing material.
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The casing of the Cobalt-60 pellets had been pried open and the hazardous materials had been extracted, which is why authorities believe the thieves might have been exposed, the Associated Press reported
According to Dr. Fred Mettler, a University of New Mexico's radiology professor and a U.S. representative to the U.N. on radiation safety, the health risk depends on the length of time the individuals were exposed and their distance to the pellets.
"If you hold the source in your hand for five or six or eight minutes you are probably going to get enough radiation to your whole body that may well kill you," Mettler told the AP. "But if somebody is across the street, they are not going to enough to really make them sick."
The 4,000 residents who live in the town of Hueypoxtla are said to not be at risk from the exposed Cobalt-60, according to Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.
"Fortunately there are no people where the source of radioactivity is," Eibenschutz told the AP.
According to commission physicist Mardonio Jimenez, there have been no hospital reports of any individuals being admitted with radiation exposure, and the radiation cannot be transferred to another party from the affected individual.
Shortly after the heist occurred, several media outlets reported about the potential risk of the stolen Cobalt-60; it can be used by terrorists to make "dirty bombs," which are conventional explosives combined with radioactive materials.
The Cobalt-60 in this case had been used in medical equipment for radiation therapy from a Tijuana hospital and was in the process of being transported to a nuclear waste facility near Mexico City.
The cargo truck hauling the Cobalt-60 was stolen from a gas station in the neighboring state of Hidalgo, about 24 miles from where the material was recovered, Jimenez said. Authorities had put out an alert in six central states and the capital looking for it, the AP noted.
Police believe the thieves had targeted the shipment for the white 2007 Volkswagen cargo vehicle with a moveable platform and crane that accompanied the Cobalt-60.
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