Experts say the health effects of coming into contact with a radioactive capsule no bigger than a coin that was lost in Western Australia – and has since been found – could be serious.
Cesium-137 is a man-made fission project often used in radiology labs as well as industrial settings, such as in gauges in mining operations, said Angela Di Fulvio, assistant professor of nuclear engineering at the University. from Illinois to Urbana-Champaign. ABC News.
The tiny caesium-137-filled capsule, measuring 8 millimeters high and 6 millimeters in diameter, was found on the side of a lonely highway on Wednesday afternoon, six days after it went missing in Western Australia.
“When you consider the extent of the search area, locating this object was a monumental challenge, the search parties literally found the needle in the haystack,” the Minister of Emergency Services said. state, Stephen Dawson, at a press conference on Wednesday, according to Reuters.
Rescuers and radiation specialists were frantically searching for the capsule along a busy 22-mile freight route in the Pilbara, Midwest Gascoyne, Goldfields-Midlands and Perth Metropolitan areas, according to the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia. .
Search teams drove north and south along the Great Northern Highway at slow speeds in the hope of finding the capsule, the DFES said in a statement. Specialized DFES search teams also used radiometers to detect gamma rays and radiation levels to try to locate the capsule, according to the agency.
The capsule was lost while being transported from the Rio Tinto mine in northern Newman to the northeast suburbs of Perth, a journey of 870 miles.
Officials believe a screw came loose inside the large lead line gauge and the unit fell through a hole, the Associated Press reported. The capsule was packaged in accordance with radiation protection regulations, officials said.
The capsule contained materials that are “a million times more active” than those used in a lab, Di Fulvio said, describing it as a “very active” source. At 1.665 millisieverts per hour, the unit of measurement used for radiation, entering 1 meter from the source, is comparable to about 17 chest X-rays, Di Fulvio said.
Prolonged close exposure to the capsule — for example, if someone were to pick it up and put it in their pocket — could have serious, even life-threatening, health effects within hours, Di Fulvio said.
Erythema, or redness of the skin, is believed to be among the earliest symptoms, and the severity of the effects increases dramatically with exposure time, she added.
According to the DFES, exposure to the radioactive substance could also cause radiation burns or radiation sickness.
Officials warned the public to stay at least 5 meters, or about 16 feet, away from him and not to touch him if they see anything that could be the material.
Andrew Robertson, Western Australia’s chief health officer, said officials feared an unsuspecting party might retrieve the object, not knowing what it is, and keep it, the AP reported. .
“I’m confident they can find it,” she said before the capsule was discovered.
The capsule had been packed on January 10 to be sent to Perth for repair, and the package containing the capsule arrived in Perth on January 16, where it was unloaded and stored in the approved service provider’s secure radiation store, according to the DFES. .
When the gauge was unpacked for inspection on January 25, inspectors found the gauge to be broken, the DFES said. One of the four mounting bolts was missing, as was the radiation source itself and all of the gauge screws.
Police say the missing capsule case was an accident and they are unlikely to file criminal charges, the AP reported. An investigation will look into how the capsule was packaged and transported.