Radioactivity, especially radioactivity used in cancer treatment and diagnostic testing, saves the lives of thousands of people every year. However, radiation is also deadly to humans when not handled properly. Large accidents and disasters, like the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion and the Fukushima Japan nuclear power plant catastrophe, get the headlines and, justifiably, make the public nervous about the use of radioactive fuel to generate electricity in nuclear power plants. However, less commonly reported are small incidents where several people, maybe dozens, are exposed. In some cases, a few of these people die as a result of accidental exposure to high radiation levels. Tragically, many of these incidents (though not all) occur in underdeveloped countries, through the recycling and sale of scrap metal. Others are related to industrial accidents, and even medical treatment errors. But all have the potential to expose unsuspecting individuals to radiation. Listed in chronological order, here are ten more examples of tragedies involving radioactive materials that resulted in death.
Ciudad Juarez Incident
In December 1983-February 1984, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and the United States, occurred one of the first widely reported cases of radiation exposure from the inadvertent destruction of orphaned sources through the scrap metal recycling process.
On December 6, 1983, a used metal teletherapy unit (pictured) containing a source container with about 6,000, one-millimeter pellets, each with radioactive cobalt 60, was deliberately opened in a scrap yard in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The pellets were scattered throughout the scrap yard, and a magnetic loader further dispersed the radioactive pellets, when the scrap metal was converted to steel products on December 10, 1983. Contaminated products included steel rebar and table pedestals, manufactured from the contaminated steel and shipped to the US. The contamination went undetected until January 16, 1984, when a truck carrying the contaminated rebar took a wrong turn at the Los Alamos, New Mexico, scientific laboratory and set off an automatic radiation sensor. Later that same day, five more trucks carrying contaminated steel were stopped at the Mexican border, near El Paso, Texas.
Over the following weeks, about 900 tons of contaminated steel were identified and recovered in the US. Some of the contaminated table parts had already been made into finished tables and had to be retrieved from restaurants.