Residents of Mmaphashalala have been advised by the Department of radiation protection to be cautious of coming into contact with anyone selling them any plastic drums.
About 15 plastic drums were reported stolen from a site near the newly proposed Mmamabula coal mine, only six have since been recovered.
Information reaching the Sunday Standard reveals that the drums are believed to be carrying soil contaminated with harmful chemicals, such as radioactive material.
According to Stephen Williams, director of Radiation Protection, ionized radiation is around us all the time but, like anything else, the human body can tolerate it to a certain level. The soil contained in the plastic drums could most likely release excessive amounts of ionized radiation that could be hazardous to an individual’s health. The people who had already come into contact with the six recovered drums are being attended to at a local clinic in Mmaphashalala and concern has shifted toward the remaining 9 drums.
“Depending on the dosage, effects of chronic exposure to ionizing radiation exceeding the set limit of 1 milli-sievert per annum for the general public have been associated with the increases in cancer, cataracts, malformations or generic effects,” said Williams.
The unfortunate incident occurred one afternoon after Poseidon Geophysics (PTY) Ltd, an Australian company on contractual terms with the department, reported a stuck radiation source in an exploration borehole in the Mmamabula coal fields. The company then resorted to retrieving the source and, in the process, the source capsule was damaged and the borehole was contaminated with radioactive material. The area was decontaminated by collecting the contaminated soil in the plastic drums in preparation for safe and secure storage. That is when the drums were stolen. Since the reported incident, the department had sent out a delegation for a clean up campaign. The site has now been quarantined.
One civilian, Michael Keteng, says he thinks the people who stole the drums were probably going to use them for water storage or brewing beer.
“They meant no harm, they obviously didn’t know of the recuperations involved in stealing the drums,” said Keteng.
According to Williams when it comes to harmful substances regardless of whether they are radioactive, toxic chemicals or other combinations that pose danger to people and animals, security against unauthorized use or access should be a priority.
“All harmful substances must be accounted for at all times, therefore, we are saying that, should the consequences of the incident prove to be drastic after retrieval of the last nine drums. Poisedon geophysics will be held responsible,” said Williams.
Normally, drums containing such contagious materials would be stored in a safe place for long periods depending on the type of nuclide they contain or until arrangements have been made to dispose of the soil in a safe manner.
“The worst case scenario we are faced with at the moment, if the remaining drums are not found would be the unknown number of people who came in direct contact with the soil as well as the passive participants and the effects that would befall these people,” said Williams.
In the meantime, an unnamed individual is helping the local police carry out their investigation for the missing drums. People of Mmaphashalala and surrounding areas have been advised to report to the local police any sightings of unaccounted for drums.