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India: radioactive in Delhi

A mysterious radiation leak exposes the dangers of recycling.

Kumar and the other loaders in Mayapuri earn between $2 and $5 a day heaving clapped out drive shafts, truck tires, axles, steel pipe and all manner of scrap onto trucks and wagons. It's brutally hard work in one of the hottest Aprils on record — the mercury already nearing 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in the lee of the dilapidated warehouse, a hairdryer wind sandblasts the ragged workers with grit. The air smells of ozone and sweat and scorched metal. The danger is as bald-faced as the filth.

“Getting hurt is part of the job,” said Kumar.

Shop number DII-32, where the first pin made of radioactive Cobalt 60 was discovered, is now shuttered, a stack of Delhi Police barricades forgotten against the wall. But the scrap dealers on either side are still watching their workers sift and sort wire and pipe. Nobody seems unduly worried about being irradiated. The national Atomic Energy Regulatory Board has given the all-clear signal after repeated sweeps of the area. And, if anything, the shop owners are defensive about the safety of their trade.

“It's perfectly safe,” one dealer said. “Why should I be worried? I'm sitting in my shop. I don't have the hobby of going around with my notebook.”

With not a spot of grease on him, he's probably never in his life touched a piece of the scrap he sells.