Radioactive capsule found in Australia could have been deadly with prolonged exposure, expert says

PERTH, Australia– The health effects of coming into contact with a radioactive capsule no bigger than a coin that was lost – and has since been found – in Western Australia could potentially be serious, experts say.

Cesium-137 is a man-made fission project that’s commonly used in radiology labs as well as industrial settings, such as gauges in mining operations, Angela Di Fulvio, an assistant professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign told ABC News.

A view shows a radioactive capsule lying on the ground near Newman, Australia on February 1, 2023.

Western Australian Department of Fire and Rescue Services

The tiny capsule, 8 millimeters high and 6 millimeters in diameter, filled with cesium-137 was found on the side of a remote motorway on Wednesday afternoon, six days after it went missing in Western Australia.

“Given the scope of the research area, locating this object was a monumental challenge, the search parties literally found a needle in a haystack,” State Emergency Services Secretary Stephen Dawson said during a news conference on Wednesday, according to Reuters.

Rescue workers and radiation specialists were frantically searching for the capsule along a 22-mile busy freight route in the Pilbara, Midwest Gascoyne, Goldfields-Midlands and Perth Metropolitan regions, according to the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia.

Search parties were traveling north and south along the Great Northern Highway at slow speed in hopes of finding the capsule, the DFES said in a statement. DFES’ specialized search teams also used radiation gauges to determine the gamma rays and radiation levels to try to locate the capsule, the agency said.

The capsule was lost during transport from the Rio Tinto mine in north Newman to the north-eastern suburbs of Perth, an 870-mile journey.

Officials believe a screw in the large lead pipe gauge loosened and the unit fell through a hole, The Associated Press reported. The capsule was packaged in accordance with radiation safety regulations, officials said.

The capsule contained materials “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 measure of radiation entering 1 meter from the source is comparable to about 17 chest X-rays, Di Fulvio said.

Prolonged contact with the pod — for example, if someone picked it up and put it in their pocket — could have serious and even potentially fatal health effects within hours, Di Fulvio said.

Erythema, or redness, of the skin is among the first symptoms, and the severity of the effects increases dramatically with exposure time, she added.

Exposure to the radioactive substance could also result in radiation burns or radiation sickness, according to the DFES.

Officials warned the public to stay at least 5 meters, or about 16 feet, away from it and not to touch it if they see anything that could be the material.

Western Australia’s chief health officer Andrew Robertson said officials were concerned an unsuspecting party would pick up the object without knowing what it was and keep it, the AP reported.

“I’m confident they’ll find it,” she said before discovering the pod

The capsule had been boxed on Jan. 10 to be sent to Perth for repairs, and the package containing the capsule arrived in Perth on Jan. 16, where it was unloaded and stored in the licensed service provider’s secure radiation storage facility, DFES said .

When the gauge was unpacked for inspection on Jan. 25, inspectors found the gauge had broken apart, the DFES said. One of the four mounting screws was missing, as was the radiation source itself and all of the screws on the meter.

Police said the missing capsule case was an accident and they are unlikely to press charges, the AP reported. An investigation will examine how the capsule was packaged and transported.

Copyright © 2023 ABC News Internet Ventures. Radioactive capsule found in Australia could have been deadly with prolonged exposure, expert says

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