Radioactive material that killed scrap dealer traced to university lab in India

NEW DELHI (AP) — A scrap dealer who dismantled a machine once used by the chemistry class of a major Indian university died of radioactive poisoning, police said Thursday, raising concerns about the country's ability to safely dispose of hazardous waste.

The dealer died Monday in New Delhi after being among workers who sawed open a gamma cell that Delhi University had auctioned off in February, a police statement said. Seven other workers are being treated for radiation exposure.

Police traced the cell to the school's chemistry laboratory, where it had been lying around unused for more than 25 years. Students had used it in the 1970s to study the radiation effects of various chemicals, said police officer Sharad Aggarwal.

Delhi University Vice Chancellor Deepak Pental apologized Thursday and accepted "moral responsibility" for the lax manner in which the radioactive equipment had been handled.

The university would compensate the victims, although "no amount can compensate for the damage," Pental said Thursday.

"Our university has a strong desire that this (incident) be investigated and recorded, Pental said. "Such accidents shouldn't happen even remotely."

The case has raised fears about the unregulated disposal of hazardous material in India, where dangerous chemicals and even radioactive waste are often sold to scrap dealers. A nuclear scientist said the incident showed how lax regulations and lack of enforcement of existing rules could lead to dangerous situations.

"In India we have better laws than most countries, but the laws are not enforced," R.G. Pillay, a nuclear expert at the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, was quoted as saying recently by the Hindustan Times newspaper.

The gamma cell was dismantled April 8, and the subsequent death and illnesses of the workers sent panic through the western New Delhi neighborhood where the scrap yard is located. The workers thought the cell was junk and had no idea they were cutting into a container with radioactive contents.

The gamma cell is a machine, which contains the radioactive substance Cobalt-60 and is used to study the effects of gamma rays on chemicals. Gamma rays are electromagnetic waves similar to X-rays.