The Goiânia incident was a case of radioactive pollution that happened on September 13, 1987, in Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil, due to the theft of a radiation source from a nearby abandoned hospital.
Four people died from the intense radiation that followed. 249 out of the approximately 112,000 people tested for radioactive contamination were determined to be contaminated.
Topsoil had to be removed from many locations during the ensuing cleanup work, and several homes had to be razed. All of the items from the homes, including personal belongings, were taken and burned.
The incident was dubbed “one of the world’s worst radiation catastrophes” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and “one of the worst nuclear disasters” by Time magazine.
What Caused the Radiation at The Goiânia Incident?
The radiation source in the Goiânia incident was a tiny capsule contained in a shielding canister constructed of lead and steel that held roughly 93 grams (3.3 oz) of highly radioactive cesium chloride (a cesium salt produced with a radioisotope, cesium-137).
The source was placed in a wheel-style container, which allows the source to be moved between the storage and irradiation locations by rotating a wheel inside the case.
In 1971, the source’s activity was 74 terabecquerels (TBq). The container is referred to as an “international standard capsule” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It had a diameter of 51 mm (two inches) and a length of 48 mm (one and a half inches). Caesium-137, an isotope with a half-life of 30 years, has an 814 TBqkg1 specific activity in the active solid.
The dose rate was 4.56 greys per hour (456 rad/h) at a distance of one meter from the source. The device was believed to have been manufactured in the United States at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
It was utilized as a radiation source for radiation therapy at the Goiânia hospital, despite the lack of a serial number making it difficult to make a conclusive identification.
Where did the Radiated Cannister Come From?
On May 4, 1987, four months before the heist, Saura Taniguti, the institute of insurance for government servants’ director at the time, used physical force to stop Carlos Figueiredo Bezerril, one of the company’s owners, from taking the radioactive material that had been left behind.
The president of Ipasgo, Lcio Teixeira Borges, was then forewarned by Figueiredo to assume responsibility for “what would happen with the cesium bomb.” The Court of Goiás stationed a security guard to keep the area safe.
In several letters, the proprietors of IGR warned the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN) that keeping a teletherapy unit at an abandoned site was dangerous. Still, they needed help to do it independently because of a court order.
The Radiated Source Gets Stolen
The guard assigned to watch the location failed to arrive for duty on September 13, 1987. Burglars Wagner Mota Pereira and Roberto dos Santos Alves illegally entered the partially destroyed IGR site while the guard was away.
They took the teletherapy device apart in part and transported it to Alves’ house in a wheelbarrow with the source assembly, which they felt would be useful for scrap. They started taking the equipment apart there.
They both started throwing up that evening as a result of radiation illness. They persisted, nonetheless, in their work. The next day, Pereira started having diarrhea and lightheadedness, and his left hand swelled.
He quickly got a burn on his hand that was the same size and form as the aperture; as a result, he had to have a few of his fingers partially amputated.
On September 15, Pereira went to a nearby clinic, where it was determined that his symptoms were brought on by something he had eaten. He was then instructed to go home and relax.
However, Alves failed to disassemble the apparatus and eventually liberated the cesium capsule from its guarding rotating head. His right forearm developed an ulcer from prolonged contact with the radioactive substance and had to be amputated on October 14.
Taking the capsule open
On September 16, Alves used a screwdriver to pierce the capsule’s aperture window, allowing him to observe a vivid blue light emanating from the little gap he had made.
He inserted the screwdriver and extracted some of the glowing stuff with success. He attempted to ignite it, assuming it might be some gunpowder, but the powder did not catch fire.
A similar blue light was seen in 1988 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States during the disencapsulation of a 137Cs source.
The exact mechanism by which the blue light was generated was unknown when the IAEA report of the incident was written. Still, it was thought to be either ionized air glow, fluorescence, or Cherenkov radiation associated with the source’s moisture absorption.
How Did the Radiation Spread?
Alves sold the goods to a local scrapyard on September 18. The junkyard proprietor, Devair Alves Ferreira, became aware of the punctured capsule’s blue glow that evening. He immediately brought the capsule into his home, believing its contents to be valuable or supernatural.
He invited family and friends to see the weird glowing substance over the course of the following three days.
On September 21, at the scrapyard, one of Ferreira’s pals (referred to in the IAEA report as “EF1”) used a screwdriver to extract several rice-sized grains of the glowing substance from the capsule.
Ferreira started discussing a few with his varied friends and relations. His 37-year-old wife, Maria Gabriela Ferreira, started feeling unwell on the same day. Devair Ferreira sold the scrap metal to a third scrapyard on September 25, 1987.
Ivo, Devair’s brother, successfully scraped some further dust out of the source on September 24, the day before the sale to the third scrapyard, and brought it to his home a short distance away. He spread some of it on the floor there.
Leide das Neves Ferreira, his six-year-old daughter, later consumed an egg while seated on the floor. When she applied the powder to her body and showed her mother how it looked, she was equally mesmerized by its blue glow.
She ate the egg after the powder’s dust got on it, eventually absorbing 1.0 GBq for a total dose of 6.0 Gy—more than a lethal dose even with treatment.
How Did the Incident Come to Attention?
Maria Gabriela Ferreira was the first to notice that many individuals nearby had suddenly become seriously ill. She retrieved the components from the competitor scrapyard on September 28, 1987, fifteen days after the item was discovered, and she took them to a hospital.
The authorities were convinced to act immediately on September 29 in the morning when a visiting medical physicist used a scintillation counter to confirm the presence of radiation. By the end of the day, the incident had reached the attention of the local, state, and federal administrations.
Swift Actions, But Too Little Too Late
Local, national, and global media outlets reported on the radiation incident. Within a few days, nearly 130,000 residents in Goiânia swarmed the neighborhood hospitals out of fear of exposure. Geiger counters were used to determine that 249 were contaminated, some with radioactive material still on their skin.
Twenty eventually had radiation illness and needed medical attention.
Who Died During the Goiânia Incident?
Admilson Alves de Souza, a Devair Ferreira worker, was 18 years old (5.3 Gy) and worked on the radioactive source. He experienced heart, intestinal bleeding, and lung damage before passing away on October 28, 1987.
Ivo Ferreira’s daughter Leide das Neves was six years old (6.0 Gy). She was sequestered in a hospital room by herself because the staff was terrified to approach her when an international team arrived to treat her.
She gradually developed internal hemorrhage, kidney and lung damage, upper body edema, and hair loss. On October 23, 1987, she passed away at the Marcilio Dias Navy Hospital in Rio de Janeiro from “septicemia and widespread illness.”
To stop radiation from spreading, she was laid to rest in a typical cemetery in Goiânia in a special fiberglass coffin lined with lead. Despite these precautions, a disturbance of more than 2,000 people broke out in the cemetery on the day of her burial because of knowledge of her upcoming burial.
They were all afraid that her corpse would contaminate the nearby area. Rioters attempted to obstruct her burial by blocking the cemetery road with stones and bricks. Despite this interference, she was buried.
Devair Ferreira’s wife, Maria Gabriela Ferreira, 37 (5.7 Gy), became ill three days after coming into touch with the material. Her condition deteriorated, and she began to lose her hair and have internal bleeding, particularly in her limbs, eyes, and digestive system.
Before passing away on October 23, 1987, the same day as her niece, of “septicemia and widespread illness,” roughly a month after exposure, she experienced mental confusion, diarrhea, and severe renal insufficiency.
Israel Batista dos Santos, a Devair Ferreira employee who was 22 years old (4.5 Gy), primarily worked on the radioactive source to remove the lead. He experienced severe lymphatic and respiratory issues, was eventually brought to the hospital, and passed away on October 27, 1987, six days later.
Despite getting 7 Gy of radiation, Devair Ferreira himself lived. Cirrhosis exacerbated by melancholy and heavy drinking claimed his life in 1994. Emphysema caused Ivo Ferreira’s death in 2003.
Other Impacted Parties
After that, 112,000 people were tested for radioactive contamination, and 249 had large amounts of radioactive material in or on them.
The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation found in 2007 that survivors of the Goiânia accident experienced the same rate of cesium-137-related illnesses as the general population. Despite this, survivors who encounter prejudice due to radiation still receive compensation.
Legal Actions Are Taken
The three doctors who had owned and run IGR were accused of criminal negligence in light of the deaths they had brought about. The Federal Constitution of 1988 still needed to be in effect when the accidents happened, and the clinic, not the individual proprietors, purchased the substance; therefore, the court could not hold them accountable.
The clinic’s physicist and one of IGR’s proprietors were each forced to pay R$100,000 for the structure’s dilapidated state. The two thieves were not named as defendants in the open civil case.
The 8th Federal Court of Goiás ordered CNEN to pay R$1.3 million (almost $750,000) in damages in 2000 and to provide medical and psychological care for the accident’s direct and indirect victims and their ancestors up to the third generation.
The Cleanup After the Goiânia Incident
Numerous locations required the removal of topsoil, and numerous homes had to be demolished. All of the items from those homes were taken out and inspected.
While those that were polluted were either decontaminated or discarded as garbage, those confirmed to be radioactively free were wrapped in plastic bags. In the industrial setting, only an object’s economic worth and simplicity of decontamination are considered when deciding whether to decontaminate or discard it.
In this instance, the IAEA acknowledged that more effort should have been made to clean up objects of personal value, such as jewelry and photographs, to lessen the psychological impact of the occurrence. The IAEA report needs to make it clear how widespread this was.
After the homes were cleaned, dust was removed with vacuum cleaners, and plumbing was checked for radioactivity.
While floors were treated with acid and Prussian blue mixes, painted surfaces could be scraped. Roofs were vacuumed and hosed down, but the roofs of two houses had to be removed. It was transported outside the city to store the waste generated during the cleanup.
Hydrochloric acid and potassium alum were used for clay, concrete, soil, and roofing. Many clays have a strong affinity for calcium.
Waxed/greased floors and tables were treated with organic solvents first, then potassium alum dissolved in hydrochloric acid. In addition to using sodium hydroxide solutions, typewriters, machines, and synthetic floors were also cleaned with dissolved potassium alum.
Even though much of the radioactive material had already moved from the bloodstream to the muscle tissue by the time Prussian blue was injected, it was nevertheless used to clean many patients internally.
However, its efficacy was significantly reduced. The ion-exchange resin was used to treat the victim’s urine to compress the waste for simple storage.
What Happened to the Source?
It was far more challenging to clean up after this incident than it should have been because the source had been opened, and the active ingredient was water-soluble. Pick up the sealed source, put it in a lead container, and move it to the radioactive waste storage.
Eventually, all remains were contained.
Next, read What Happened When Divers Searched the Bottom of Lake Tahoe. Then, if you’re interested in UFOs, try the Horrifying Story of the Mutilations at Skinwalker Ranch!
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