Tragic True Story of How a Boy in 1960s Mexico Found a Radioactive Capsule

A Boy in Mexico in the 1960S Found a Radioactive Capsule in a Sad True Story

Photo: SATAKORN.S/Depositphotos (Not a photo of the actual capsule.)

We don't expect to hear much about radioactive capsules, but they continue to make the news. In February 2023, there was a shocking loss and miraculous finding of the pea-sized Australian capsule full of Caesium-137. While these events startled people around the world and sent the Australian authorities into a frenzied search, capsules getting lost is not unprecedented.

In 1962, a 10-year-old boy discovered a capsule containing highly dangerous cobalt-60 near Mexico City. Tragically, four members of the family perished due to the radiation, as they did not know it was dangerous. This largely forgotten tale highlights the dangers of losing radioactive material.

Reports differ on where the boy discovered the capsule. It was a 5-Ci cobalt-60 capsule used as a source of radiation for radiography such as X-rays. The capsule was—or eventually became—removed from its protective lead casing. This left the object free to spread extremely harmful radiation. The boy reportedly carried it in his pocket for a couple of days before his mother found it and placed it in the kitchen around April 1st. “The source was left to the family to keep and watch without any of the members of the family knowing exactly what the container was and what it contained,” a report by the family's doctors stated.

Eventually, the family began to feel ill. They noticed their glassware was blackening, which is a sign of radiation—although they did not know it. The young boy died on April 29. His mother—six months pregnant at the time—died on July 19. A 2-year-old sister died on August 18, and the boy's paternal grandmother, living with the family since April 17, died on October 15. The father, who was exposed to significant radiation, managed to survive. His radiation levels were 990-1,200 radiation absorbed doses (rad), far lower than the boy's 4,700-5,200 rad. The differing levels for certain family members likely correlated to how often they came close to the capsule. The sad story ended in an investigation that turned up the source of the poisoning.

This is just one example of the dangers of radiation exposure. More famous examples are the deaths of Marie Curie, the famous scientist whose own work poisoned her, and Chernobyl, the famous meltdown site. The lasting effects of radiation can even cause damage for generations. Thankfully, the Australian capsule was lost in a rural area for only six days and seems to have not exposed anyone. But this tale from the past is surely a reminder of the importance of caution with such often useful, but dangerous, materials.

In 1962, a young boy found a radioactive capsule near Mexico City, which sadly poisoned his family.

A Boy in Mexico in the 1960S Found a Radioactive Capsule in a Sad True Story

A standard cobalt-60 capsule encased in lead, as it should be. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

h/t: [IFL Science]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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