MEXICO CITY, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- Six people were hospitalized Friday in Pachuca, Mexico, for possible radiation poisoning, two days after cobalt-60 was recovered from a stolen truck.
The five adults and one teenager apparently came in contact with the radioactive waste after the truck was stolen Monday in Tepojaco, north of Mexico City, health officials told Mexico's state-run Notimex news service.
The white Volkswagen truck and the cobalt-60, a radioactive element used for medical purposes, were found Wednesday near Hueypoxtla, about 25 miles from where the truck was reported stolen, CNN reported Friday.
While cobalt-60 is highly radioactive, it poses a health risk only to those directly exposed to it, Mexico's National Civil Protection Office said.
The suspected thieves likely didn't know that cobalt-60 was in the truck when they stole it, officials said. The material can cause radiation poisoning that damages organs and cells within days.
The six people hospitalized were reported in stable condition.
Mexican authorities told the International Atomic Energy Agency the truck was transporting the cobalt from a Tijuana hospital to a radioactive waste storage facility.
The container holding cobalt was found about a half-mile from the truck and showed signs it had been opened, said Juan Eibenschutz Hartman, head of Mexico's National Commission for Nuclear Security and Safeguards. Less than 40 grams were inside the container.
Authorities set up a 550-yard perimeter around the area where the truck and cobalt-60 were found.
Cleanup could take weeks because the agency doesn't have the robotic equipment needed to collect the cobalt quickly, Eibenschutz said. Officials were developing a plan and were considering asking the IAEA, the United States or Canada for assistance.
Besides its use in medical and industrial fields, experts said cobalt-60 possibly could be used in a dirty bomb, CNN reported.
In a speech last year, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano warned that a dirty bomb made with cobalt-60 and detonated "could cause mass panic, as well as serious economic and environmental consequences."