A DEADLY canister of radioactive material has been stolen from the back of a van.

If exposed the material, believed to be Iridium 192, can increase the risk of cancer, cause burns, radiation sickness or even death.

Police have warned people not to touch the yellow canister, which is marked with radiation trefoil.

It was taken between 1am on Saturday and 3.20am yesterday from a Peugeot Panel Van parked outside a house in New Line, Bacup.

It is believed the material was intended for industrial use.

The material was being transported from Scotland to the south of England by a courier who had stopped overnight.

Police said the courier had left Lancashire and was making his first delivery of the day when he noticed it had been taken. A fire extinguisher and a number of personal items had also been stolen.

A full investigation is now under way to find the sealed foot-long 15kg canister, police said.

Chief Inspector Russ Procter said the thieves may not be aware of the danger and urged people not to touch it.

He said: "It is important that this material is located as soon as possible.

"I would ask the public, especially in the Rossendale area, to keep an eye out for this canister and if they locate it then to call the police who will go and deal with it.

“I would also appeal direct to the people who have stolen it.

"They may have no idea what it is that they have in their possession or they may have discarded it somewhere.

“If that is the case then I would ask them to contact us or call Crimestoppers anonymously.

“It’s a really unusual theft. It is too early to say if the vehicle was targeted for these items. We are still in the early stages of the investigation."

Iridium 192 is a metal often used in industrial gauges that inspect welding seams, and can also be used in medicine to treat certain cancers.

However, large amounts of the material can increase the risk of cancer due of its high-energy gamma radiation, and it can also cause burns and acute radiation sickness.

The canister, which requires a key to be opened, has a thick layer of lead on the inside protecting a smaller canister, which contains the Iridium 192.

The Health Protection Agency urged anyone coming into contact with the cylinder to leave it where it is and alert the police.

A spokesperson said: “The radioactive material, believed to be Iridium 192, will not pose a risk to the public if it remains contained in its heavy lead container marked with the radiation trefoil.

“However, if the material is outside of its protection packaging, anyone who has come into prolonged physical contact, such as keeping it in a pocket, should seek medical assistance.

“If you see this package you should immediately inform the Police, do not touch it and keep away.”

A spokesman for the Office for Nuclear Regulation, which works to protect the public from hazardous materials, said: "We are aware of the incident overnight in Bacup.

“Police are leading in this matter and we are assisting their inquiries. Our input is largely to provide specialist advice on matters relating to the transport of radioactive materials, which we regulate, and in time we will conduct our own regulatory inquiries into this incident.”