The Goiânia accident was a radioactive contamination accident that occurred on September 13, 1987, at Goiânia, in the Brazilian state of Goiás, after an old radiotherapy source was stolen from an abandoned hospital site in the city. It was subsequently handled by many people, resulting in four deaths. About 112,000 people were examined for radioactive contamination and 249 were found to have significant levels of radioactive material in or on their bodies.
In the cleanup operation, topsoil had to be removed from several sites, and several houses were demolished. All the objects from within those houses were removed and examined. Time magazine has identified the accident as one of the world’s “worst nuclear disasters” and the International Atomic Energy Agency called it “one of the world’s worst radiological incidents”.
What follows in a incredible series of events motivated purely out of ignorance, childish wonder and greed, and the dire consequences this brought to the people involved and the city as a whole:
The accident began when two thieves, Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira, broke into the abandoned and partially demolished Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR), where they came across a caesium-137-based teletherapy unit.
They partially disassembled the unit, and placed the source assembly – which they thought might have some scrap value – in a wheelbarrow, taking it to Alves’s home, and once there, they began dismantling the equipment. That same evening, they both began to vomit. Nevertheless, they continued in their efforts. The following day, Pereira began to experience diarrhea and dizziness and his left hand began to swell. He soon developed a burn on this hand in the same size and shape as the aperture – he eventually had partial amputation of several fingers.
On September 15, Pereira visited a local clinic where his symptoms were diagnosed as the result of something he had eaten, and he was told to return home and rest. Alves, however, continued with his efforts to dismantle the equipment. In the course of this effort, he eventually freed the caesium capsule from its protective rotating head. His prolonged exposure to the radioactive material led to his right forearm becoming ulcerated, requiring amputation.
On September 16, Alves succeeded in puncturing the capsule’s aperture window with a screwdriver, allowing him to see a deep blue light coming from the tiny opening he had created. He inserted the screwdriver and successfully scooped out some of the glowing substance. Thinking it was perhaps a type of gunpowder, he tried to light it, but the powder would not ignite.
On September 18, Alves sold the items to a nearby scrapyard. That night, Devair Alves Ferreira, the owner of the scrapyard, noticed the blue glow from the punctured capsule. Thinking the capsule’s contents were valuable or even supernatural, he immediately brought it into his house. Over the next three days, he invited friends and family to view the strange glowing substance.
On September 21 at the scrapyard, one of Ferreira’s friends succeeded in freeing several rice-sized grains of the glowing material from the capsule using a screwdriver; Alves Ferreira began to share some of them with various friends and family members. That same day, his wife, 37-year-old Gabriela Maria Ferreira, began to fall ill. On September 25, 1987, Devair Alves Ferreira sold the scrap metal to a second scrapyard.
The day before the sale to the second scrapyard, on September 24, Ivo, Devair’s brother, successfully scraped some additional dust out of the source and took it to his house a short distance away. There he spread some of it on the cement floor. His six-year-old daughter, Leide das Neves Ferreira, later ate a sandwich while sitting on this floor. She was also fascinated by the blue glow of the powder, applying it to her body and showing it off to her mother. Dust from the powder fell on the sandwich she was consuming; she eventually absorbed 1.0 GBq, total dose 6.0 Gy, more than a fatal dose even with treatment.
Gabriela Maria Ferreira had been the first to notice that many people around her had become severely ill at the same time.
On September 28, 1987 — 15 days after the item was found — she reclaimed the materials from the rival scrapyard and transported them to a hospital. Because the remains of the source were kept in a plastic bag, the level of contamination at the hospital was low.
In the morning of September 29, 1987 a visiting medical physicist used a scintillation counter to confirm the presence of radioactivity and persuaded the authorities to take immediate action. The city, state, and national governments were all aware of the incident by the end of the day.
News of the radiation incident was broadcast on local, national, and international media. Within days, nearly 130,000 people swarmed local hospitals concerned that they might have been exposed. Of those, 250 were indeed found to be contaminated— some with radioactive residue still on their skin— through the use of Geiger counters. Eventually, 20 people showed signs of radiation sickness and required treatment.
Ages in years are given, with dosages listed in grays (Gy).
- Leide das Neves Ferreira, age 6 (6.0 Gy), was the daughter of Ivo Ferreira. When an international team arrived to treat her, she was discovered confined to an isolated room in the hospital because the hospital staff were afraid to go near her. She gradually experienced swelling in the upper body, hair loss, kidney and lung damage, and internal bleeding. She died on October 23, 1987, of “septicemia and generalized infection” at the Marcilio Dias Navy Hospital, in Rio de Janeiro. She was buried in a common cemetery in Goiânia, in a special fiberglass coffin lined with lead to prevent the spread of radiation. Despite these measures, news of her impending burial caused a riot of more than 2,000 people in the cemetery on the day of her burial, all fearing that her corpse would poison the surrounding land. Rioters tried to prevent her burial by using stones and bricks to block the cemetery roadway. She was buried despite this interference.
- Gabriela Maria Ferreira, aged 37 (5.7 Gy), wife of junkyard owner Devair Ferreira, became sick about three days after coming into contact with the substance. Her condition worsened, and she developed internal bleeding, especially in the limbs, eyes, and digestive tract, and suffered from hair loss. She died October 23, 1987, about a month after exposure.
- Israel Baptista dos Santos, aged 22 (4.5 Gy), was an employee of Devair Ferreira who worked on the radioactive source primarily to extract the lead. He developed serious respiratory and lymphatic complications, was eventually admitted to hospital, and died six days later on October 27, 1987.
- Admilson Alves de Souza, aged 18 (5.3 Gy), was also an employee of Devair Ferreira who worked on the radioactive source. He developed lung damage, internal bleeding, and heart damage, and died October 18, 1987.
Devair Ferreira himself survived despite receiving 7 Gy of radiation. He died in 1994 of cirrhosis aggravated by depression and binge drinking.