Stolen radioactive soil gauge could be hazardous to burglar

March 14, 1997|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

A bright yellow box the size of a suitcase may have looked like a good find to the burglar who prowled through an Odenton construction trailer overnight Wednesday, but police say its contents had no value to the thief -- and could prove hazardous to his health.

The box contained a soil moisture-density gauge, which uses radioactive materials to measure the density of compacted soil.

Although it emits harmless, minuscule amounts of radioactivity while enclosed in a tungsten and lead compartment, if opened, the exposed elements of americium, beryllium and cesium could cause anything from a rash to cancer, authorities said yesterday.

"The reaction would depend on the power of the radioactive materials and the length of exposure," said Quentin Banks, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "It's not something you want to put in your pocket and carry around."

County police said they got a call about 7 a.m. from construction workers at a site on Berger Street near Nevada Avenue, where SSC Corp. of Pasadena is building sewer mains. Its construction trailer had been burglarized, and the device stolen along with an adding machine and a portable television-radio, police said.

The gauge, owned by EBA Engineering in Baltimore and leased to contractors, stands about three feet high and looks similar to a vacuum cleaner without a bag. Radioactive symbols are clearly displayed on its yellow carrying case.

The device has a cylindrical metal probe, which contains radioactive elements about the size of a pool cue tip, Banks said.

When the probe is inserted into the ground, the gauge reads the level of radioactive energy; the less energy, the more dense the dirt.

Banks said it would take a lot of effort to expose the elements inside the device. They are protected by two padlocks and encased in two layers of heavy metal. Bumping or dropping the device would not likely cause the elements to leak, he said.

Although the device is worth about $6,000, "it's not something you can walk into a pawn shop with, plunk it on the counter and walk away with a significant amount of money," Banks said. "We're batting 1.000 on recovery of these things."

Banks noted that another of the gauges was stolen from a school construction site in Montgomery County Jan. 14. Police found it on the side of the road three weeks later.

"Somebody decided this is not something worth glowing in the dark over, and they dumped it," Banks said.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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