Officials have warned the public of the risks of touching a small capsule containing a radioactive substance that has been lost in transit in Western Australia.
The silver, round capsule, about a quarter inch in diameter and about a third of an inch tall, contains a small amount of radioactive cesium-137, a substance used in mining gauges. The Australian Department of Health has warned of the serious health consequences of the material.
The capsule exited a mine site by road north of the town of Newman on Jan. 12, according to a statement released Saturday by Western Australia’s Department of Fire & Emergency Services (DFES).
It was sent to the north east suburbs of Perth for repairs. The package containing the capsule arrived in Perth on January 16, was unloaded and stored in secure radiation storage.
However, when the packaging was opened for inspection on Wednesday, it was found that the meter had been broken apart and screws were missing – and the capsule was not there.
Western Australia Police notified DFES and the Hazard Management Agency that evening. A search is underway to find the pod and contain it safely, according to DFES Country North Chief Superintendent David Gill.
“An interagency incident management team consisting of DFES, the Department of Health, WA Police and other subject matter experts confirms the exact route and stops made during the journey from north of Newman,” he said in a statement on Friday.
“The origin and destination of the transport journey – the mine site north of Newman and the transport depot in Perth’s north-east suburbs – were among the locations searched on Thursday and Friday,” he added. “We’re also combing streets and other areas in the search zone.”
The emergency services warned of a risk of radioactive substances in parts of the Pilbara, Midwest Gascoyne, Goldfields-Midlands and Perth metropolitan areas.
Exposure to cesium-137 can cause radiation burns or radiation sickness. However, the risk to the general public is relatively low, officials said.
“If people see the capsule or anything like that, stay away from it and keep others away from it as well,” said Dr. Andrew Robertson, chief health officer and chair of the Radiological Council, in a statement Friday.
“Don’t touch or pick it up. The public is asked to report this immediately by calling 13 DFES (13 33 37),” he added, advising anyone touching the material or being in close proximity to it for an extended period to seek medical attention.
“If you get very close or touch the material, the risk of radiation increases immensely and could cause serious damage to your health, including radiation burns to the skin,” Robertson said.