Officials have warned the public of the risks in touching a small capsule containing a radioactive substance that was lost during transportation in Western Australia.
The silver, round capsule, which measures about a quarter of an inch in diameter and is about a third of an inch tall, contains a small quantity of radioactive Cesium-137, a substance used within gauges in mining operations. Australia’s Department of Health has warned of the material’s serious health consequences.
The capsule left a mine site north of the town of Newman by road on January 12, according to a statement released by Western Australia’s Department of Fire & Emergency Services (DFES) on Saturday.
It was being sent to the northeastern suburbs of Perth for repairs. The package holding the capsule arrived in Perth on January 16 and was unloaded and kept in a secure radiation store.
However, when the package was opened for inspection on Wednesday, the gauge was found to be broken apart with screws 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 capsule and safely contain it, according to DFES Country North chief superintendent David Gill.
“A multi-agency Incident Management Team, comprised of DFES, Department of Health, WA Police and other subject matter experts, are confirming the exact route and stops made during the journey from north of Newman,” he said in a statement on Friday.
“The start and finish of the transportation journey – the mine site north of Newman and the transport depot in the north-eastern suburbs of Perth – were among the locations searched” on Thursday and Friday, he added. “We are also combining roads and other areas in the search zone.”
The emergency services warned of a radioactive substance risk in parts of the Pilbara, Midwest Gascoyne, Goldfields-Midlands and Perth Metropolitan regions.
Exposure to Cesium-137 could cause radiation burns or radiation sickness. However, risk to the general community is relatively low, officials said.
“If people see the capsule or something that looks similar, stay away from it and keep others away from it too,” said Dr. Andrew Robertson, chief health officer and Radiological Council chair, in a statement on Friday.
“Do not touch or pick it up. The public is asked to report it immediately by calling 13 DFES (13 33 37),” he added, advising anyone who touches or goes close to the material for a long period of time to seek medical care.
“If you are very close to the material or touching it, the radiation risk increases immensely and could cause serious damage to your health, including causing radiation burns to the skin,” Robertson said.