Analysis // Ben FrankelIndia's cobalt-60 poisoning: canary in a coal mine

Published 13 April 2010

The safe disposal of millions of sources of radiation — materials and devices used in hospitals, labs, universities, industrial testing and measurements, and more — is a big problem; monitoring these sources of radiation is lax or non-existent: there are approximately two million radioactive devices in U.S. factories, hospitals, research facilities, and other places nationwide; last fall the Nuclear Regulatory Commissioned (NRC) moved to tighten regulations of these devices — but only of a tiny fraction of them (2,000 in all); moreover, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that up to 500,000 of those devices are unaccounted for

Five people suffered severe radiation burns four days ago in a West Delhi industrial area after handling Cobalt-60. Scientists from the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and Narora Atomic Power Station have been scanning the Mayapuri Industrial area to examine whether there was any other source of a similar emission in the vicinity.

The experts have identified the material as Cobalt-60. They have identified six sources of Cobalt-60 from the scrap shop,” B. B. Bhattacharya, member of National Disaster Management Authority and former director of BARC, said.

Cobalt-60 is a radioactive isotope of cobalt, which is a hard, lustrous, grey metal. Cobalt-based colors and pigments have been used since ancient times for jewelry and paints. Bhattacharjee said Cobalt-60 is used in fabrication work, specially for welding steel. It is also used in radiotherapy for treating cancer.

According to deputy commissioner of police (West) Sharad Aggarwal, experts visited the Mayapuri scrap market and scanned the area to check whether there was any other source of radiation emission in the vicinity. “The team had identified the source of radiation. They have collected the material and isolated it. They are examining it,” Aggarwal said.

Bhattacharjee said the radiation was from a “very powerful source” as Deepak Jain, the scrap dealer undergoing treatment in Apollo Hospital, is in a serious condition.

DNA reports that scientists from Crisis Management Group of Department of India’s Atomic Energy (DAE) and Atomic Energy Regulation Board had carried out the survey of the extent of radiation in the area.

The incident came to light on 9 April a scrap dealer who suffered serious burn injuries was rushed to Apollo Hospital. The hospital informed the government that he had suffered radiation.

The dealer fell unconscious and his hands had turned black after coming into contact with the object, part of medical waste which was bought from a city hospital. Four workers employed by him also suffered injuries in the incident.

Asked how the material made it to scrap, Bhattacharya said the scrap dealers do not have requisite instruments to check whether any material they collect is radioactive or not. “We do not know the source from where it came from. Whether it came from abroad or not, we do not know. Hopefully, we will be able to ascertain the facts soon,” he said.

We are yet to get details. We do not know whether the operator hid the source. Such material sometimes come to the public domain,” he said.