OCEANSIDE — Police officials Thursday alerted law enforcement agencies in five western states to be on the lookout for a stolen pickup truck bearing a small steel box that contains potentially lethal radioactive material used to make industrial X-rays.
The truck, a tan 4-wheel-drive 1985 GMC with Wyoming license 2/3 5692, and a camper shell on the back, was stolen last weekend from a parking lot outside an Oceanside firm, police said.
Locked in the white, windowless shell was a stainless steel box the size of a lunch pail containing a chunk of iridium 192. San Diego County health officials warned that exposure to the pill-sized pellet for even a few minutes could prove deadly.
Although the box containing the radioactive pellet was sealed and is probably invulnerable to tampering, officials with the company that owns the truck expressed concern that someone with the right tools and enough fortitude could pry the material out.
"If that happened, it could be a life-threatening situation for the individuals involved," said Tom Cuthbertson, radiation safety director for United States Testing, the industrial X-ray firm that owns the vehicle. "If someone was to take it out and put it in their pocket, for instance, they could pick up a lethal dose in as little as 30 seconds."
The radioactive pellet contained in the steel box is used while taking X-rays of pipe joints and industrial machinery, according to Cuthbertson.
By turning a screw on the box, the pellet is pushed out of the container, releasing radioactivity that can expose X-ray film. The box bears two yellow stickers reading: CAUTION: RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL.
Frank Bold, a senior health physicist with the San Diego County Department of Health Services, said it is unlikely the box could be penetrated with anything short of a blow torch.
"In its present containment, it's not a health hazard," Bold said. "It's not a big deal unless somebody for some reason were to cut that case open, torch it open."
Typically, the box containing the radioactive pellet is locked after hours in a special storage area inside the firm's office. But the work crew using the truck last Friday returned from a job late and opted to leave the container inside the vehicle over the weekend, Cuthbertson said.
The workers, he said, locked the container and placed it inside another locked compartment in the camper shell, which serves as a darkroom for developing the X-ray film. Before leaving the vehicle, the workers also locked the camper shell, Cuthbertson said.
Company officials said they discovered the truck missing Tuesday morning after returning from a three-day weekend and immediately notified Oceanside police. Apparently, however, the gravity of the situation was unclear to police, who treated the report as a routine stolen vehicle incident.
Police issued a standard stolen vehicle bulletin Tuesday to other California law enforcement agencies and noted that the truck contained hazardous materials but Cuthbertson complained that stronger steps should have been taken sooner.
Cuthbertson said he was pleased that police released the all-points warning on Thursday but he said he wished it had happened two days earlier so the odds of recovering the truck and its deadly contents would have been better.
The firm notified state health officials and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday, but police did not contact county health authorities to inform them of the incident until Thursday morning.
Tom Bussey, an Oceanside police spokesman, said the officers and clerks who handled the vehicle theft apparently were unaware of the potential danger posed by the radioactive pellet. He said the department's public relations staff learned of the matter late Wednesday afternoon when they received inquiries from a local newspaper reporter who had been called by officials with United States Testing.
"We didn't know it was as serious as it was," Bussey said. "People are not familiar with what iridium 192 is."
Bold warned that anyone who came across the stainless steel box holding the radioactive pellet should not pick it up unless it appears to be in one piece.
"If the container is still intact, they can pick it up and bring it into the police," Bold said. "If it's torn up then they shouldn't touch it and they should get the hell out of there."
Bold said his greatest fear is that the box could find its way into Mexico where it might be sold as scrap metal. If the box was broken open or melted, he said, the radioactive pellet could contaminate steel or other materials it came in contact with.
In 1984, Mexican officials ordered portions of buildings and sidewalks in Mexicali torn down after they discovered that 28 tons of radioactive steel reinforcing rods had been used in the structures. The steel was contaminated when a cancer therapy device sold as junk to a Juarez salvage yard was broken open and 6,000 radioactive pellets of Cobalt 60 came in contact with scrap metal.
Oceanside police said that 4-wheel-drive vehicles such as the stolen truck are common targets for thieves from Mexico.