Mexican officials have sent an alert to five southern states after the robbery of a capsule containing radioactive material this week in Tabasco, the fourth such robbery in Mexico since late 2013.
The theft occurred in Cárdenas, a city in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco. Civil protection authorities in Mexico's interior ministry advised residents in the states of Tabasco, Campeche, Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz to be on the lookout for the shoebox-size metal capsule, and to avoid any direct contact with the source of Iridium-192 it contains.
Iridium-192, classified as Category 2 radioactive material, is used primarily in industrial radiography equipment. It does not pose health risks to humans as long as it remains inside its steel container, said Mexico's National Commission for Nuclear Safety.
But if removed from its container, the Iridium-192 source could lead to poisoning, cancer, or death, depending on length of exposure.
Robbers targeted a red Chevrolet truck holding the capsule in a parking lot in Cárdenas, where the personnel who were transporting the capsule for the private company that owns it, Garantía Radiográfica e Ingeniería, left it unattended. When they returned, the truck was missing.
The employees reported the robbery on Monday.
In December 2013, thieves ran off with a truck carrying medical waste that contained a batch of Cobalt-60, another radioactive material. In July 2014, another source of Iridium-192 — the same as in this week's theft — went missing in the state of Mexico. Yet another batch of Iridium-192 was stolen in Guanajuato in February.
In all these previous cases, authorities stressed, the substances have been found, and posed no risk for the population.
Officials at the national nuclear safety commission said thieves are likely unaware that the trucks they are stealing are carrying potentially dangerous substances. Monday's robbed truck was found the following evening, yet the capsule and other belongings left inside had been removed.
"It is useless material," said Mardonio Jiménez, director of operations for the National Commission for Nuclear Safety, in an interview with VICE News after a previous robbery.
Although not involving a radioactive material, as recently as Sunday, the state of Puebla warned neighboring states of a theft of a truck transporting paraformaldehyde, which is highly flammable. The container was found with its contents reportedly untouched.
Rafael Castillo contributed to this report. For the latest in Mexico news, follow @vicenews on Twitter.