Database of radiological incidents and related events--Johnston's Archive

Ciudad Juarez orphaned source dispersal, 1983

compiled by Wm. Robert Johnston
last modified 23 November 2005

Date: 6 December 1983-February 1984

Location: Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Type of event: dispersal of lost radioactive source


A scrap yard in Ciudad Juarez obtained a used medical teletherapy unit containing about 6,000 1-millimeter pellets of cobalt-60, totalling over 400 curies. On 6 December the source container was deliberately ruptured, scattering pellets throughout the yard. A magnetic loader further dispersed the pellets, many of which ended up in scrap metal converted into steel products around 10 December. Products included steel rebar from a Chihuahua plant, table pedestals from Falcon Products Company in Juarez (some of both items were shipped to the USA), products from a foundry in Torreon, and products from a producer in Guadalajara. The contamination was undetected until 16 January 1984, when a truck carrying contaminated rebar took a wrong turn at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, triggering automatic radiation sensors. Later that day five other trucks carrying contaminated steel were stopped at a border crossing at El Paso, Texas. Efforts to collect contaminated steel progressed over the next few weeks, with about 500 to 931 tons estimated to have entered the USA. In late January contaminated steel was traced to a table manufacturer in St. Louis, Missouri, and 2,500 castings were recalled from 40 states and replaced; most tables were in warehouses but some were removed from restaurants. In February Mexican authorities reported 3 or 4 individuals had received doses of 100 to 450 rem. The U.S. DOE assisted Mexico in aerial surveys 20-26 March which identified 21 contaminated areas. One contaminated pickup truck was found in a residential neighborhood with children playing in it. In Sinaloa Mexican authorities demolished 109 houses built with contaminated rebar. One worker subsequently died of bone cancer, with another 4 injured. A total of at least 10 individuals received significant exposures.

Consequences: 1 fatality, 4 injuries


© 2004, 2005 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 23 November 2005.
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