SCIENCE DECEMBER 5, 2013
Earlier this week, a truck carrying radioactive material was hijacked while traveling from a hospital in Tijuana to a storage facility in near Mexico City. Police later found the stolen truck near the rural town of Hueypoxtla, which has been cordoned off because the thieves apparently opened the sealed container containing the deadly chemical cobalt-60. The thieves themselves haven't turned up yet, but that's probably because they're dying. As Mardonio Jimenez, a physicist for Mexico’s National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, told The Washington Post, “The people who handled it will have severe problems with radiation. They will, without a doubt, die.” Likely in the next day or two, he said.
Cobalt-60 is produced commercially for use in industrial plants and for cancer radiotherapy. Like any radioactive material, it can also cause cancer if you're exposed to low amount over a long period of time. But how cobalt-60 will exact its punishment on the thieves is a different, gruesome matter.
The chemical emits gamma rays: light waves of very high frequency that contain enormous amounts of energy, and which can cause acute radiation sickness of varying degrees depending on the amount, intensity, and type of exposure. A person can suffer serious harm, even death, from radiation sickness without ever actually touching radioactive material; mere exposure is enough. When a gamma ray comes in contact with a human cell, its energy interferes with chemical bonds—a process called ionization. A person’s DNA can break, causing mutations or killing the cells in question.
Thus, the thieves in Mexico are probably in great pain. They may have burns and blisters on their skin. They could have diarrhea, a headache, and a fever. They may be vomiting—perhaps even vomiting blood. Their stomachs and intestines could be bleeding. The radiation has probably depleted their supply of red and white blood cells. Lack of the former will reduce their bodies’ access to oxygen, making them tired; lack of the latter will lower their resistance to infections, making it easier for them to get even sicker. They may be suffering from seizures, or even in be in a coma by now.
We know this, mainly, due to experiments into cobalt-60's effects on animal subjects, but a 1989 accident at an industrial facility near San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, exposed three workers to high amounts of the material. The worker who had it worst was taken to a hospital in Mexico City, where his right leg was amputated because it was covered in so many burns that the tissue died. He received a bone marrow transplant, and eventually contracted pneumonia. After six and a half months, he died.
That was under Mexico's best medical care. The the cobalt-60 thieves probably aren't getting any such attention: According to Jimenez, no one this week has reported to a local hospital with symptoms of radiation.
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