THIEVES who stole highly dangerous radioactive lightning conductors have been warned they risk cancer – or worse – if they come into close contact with the rods.
The radioactive rods were being stored in a lead-lined concrete bunker, but their removal from safe storage means they now pose a very serious health risk.
Detectives have now issued a public health warning about the radioactive conductors.
The seven spikes – which were used to prevent lightning damage to church spires – were stolen from Balheary Road in Swords, Co Dublin, over the weekend.
The State's nuclear watchdog has also issued an urgent appeal for the thieves to make contact and arrange for the safe disposal of the devices.
Director of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII), Dr Tom Ryan said the hazardous devices could contaminate anyone who came into contact with them, posing a long-term risk of cancer, and warned anyone who came across them to stay well clear and immediately notify the authorities.
"They were being held in a business premises and were being safely stored," he said.
"They were in a locked metal container and stored in a lead-lined concrete bunker. The steel box only offers some level of protection. If they're outside the box, there's less protection again.
A licence is needed to keep the material and it is understood the legal owner was authorised to keep them.
Gardai said the devices had the appearance of aluminium or stainless steel but were of no scrap value. They believe a Traveller gang, which had been looking for valuable copper piping, was responsible for the theft.
Dr Ryan said: "They contain radium and americium. Radium was used in radiotherapy in the past, and americium will be found in minute quantities in a smoke detector in your house.
"It's of concern because of the amount of radioactive material, particularly the radium.
"There's an annual dose level of radiation for members of the public, which is one millisievert. If you were standing beside this box for a couple of hours, you would exceed that dose limit.
"The more radiation you're exposed to, the higher your risk of cancer in the long term. If you open up this box and handle this material and try and break it up, there's the threat of contamination to your hands, clothes or skin. You could ingest it, if eating food. That would cause internal contamination."
A throwback to the 1960s and 1970s, the rods were typically attached to tall buildings and church steeples and used to prevent lightning damage.
"A good few years ago, there was a theory that if you put a radioactive source in a lightning preventor it would ionise the air around the rod and create an electrical charge which would attract lightning. It was debunked and you don't see them any more," Dr Ryan said.