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'Very dangerous' radioactive material stolen in Mexico, police say

The stolen material, iridium-192, is classified as a Category 2 threat by the IAEA -- which poses a "very dangerous" risk to persons exposed to it.

By
Doug G. Ware
A casing full of iridium-192 was stolen from a vehicle in Cardinas, Mexico, authorities said. Iridium-192 is used in industrial and medical radiography and is considered a very dangerous Category 2 material by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Photo by zlikovec/Shutterstock
A casing full of iridium-192 was stolen from a vehicle in Cardinas, Mexico, authorities said. Iridium-192 is used in industrial and medical radiography and is considered a "very dangerous" Category 2 material by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Photo by zlikovec/Shutterstock

CARDENAS, Mexico, April 16 (UPI) -- Civil authorities and law enforcement agencies in southern Mexico were put on alert Thursday after radioactive material was stolen from a vehicle -- probably by thieves who didn't know what they were taking, investigators said.

The stolen material was identified as iridium-192, which is a compound used in medical and industrial radiography, officials said. It was removed from a vehicle in Cardenas in the state of Tabasco, near Mexico's border with Guatemala.

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The Mexican government advised five southern states of the theft and warned anyone who might come across the radioactive material to notify authorities immediately -- without handling the iridium-192, which can be deadly upon exposure.

Iridium-192 is classified by the International Atomic Energy Agency as a Category 2 material -- defined by the regulatory firm as "industrial gamma radiography sources or high or medium dose rate brachytherapy sources."

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"Category 1 sources are potentially the most dangerous and Category 5 sources are the most unlikely to be dangerous," the IAEA says regarding its classification of radioactive materials.

The agency says Category 2 materials, like iridium-192, are "very dangerous" to anyone who directly handles or is directly exposed to it.

"If not safely managed or securely protected, [Category 2 materials] could cause permanent injury to a person who handled it or who was otherwise in contact with it for a short time," the agency says. "It could possibly be fatal to be close to this amount of unshielded radioactive material for a period of hours to days."

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However, contamination to populations via other methods, like fire or water, is extremely improbable.

"It would be virtually impossible for a source in Category 2 ... to contaminate a public water supply to dangerous levels," the IAEA said.

In addition to Tabasco, the states of Campeche, Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz were also put on alert.

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Investigators believe the material was likely taken by thieves who didn't know exactly what they were stealing. The iridium-192 was safely encased when it was removed from the vehicle. Officials instructed anyone who finds the material to establish a safe perimeter around it and contact local authorities.

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This is the second time in the last two and-a-half years that radioactive material has been stolen out of a vehicle in Mexico. In December 2013, a canister of cobalt-60 -- a radioactive isotope produced in nuclear reactors -- was stolen and later found abandoned in a field.

Cobalt-60 is classified by the IAEA as a Category 1 material -- considered as "extremely dangerous" to anyone who handles or comes into direct exposure of it. In that case, investigators said the thieves took the cobalt-60 without knowing what it was.

Following the cobalt theft, six people were hospitalized for exposure but no serious or permanent effects were sustained by any of them.

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