Goiânia Accident

The Goiânia accident was a radioactive contamination accident in central Brazil that killed 4, injured 28, and produced over 200 cases of detectable radiation poisoning.

On 13 September 1987, an old nuclear medicine source was scavenged from an abandoned hospital in Goiânia, the capital of the central Brazilian state of Goiás. It was subsequently handled by many people, resulting in four deaths and serious radioactive contamination of 249 other people. Time magazine has identified the accident as one of the world's "worst nuclear disasters".

The object was a small, highly radioactive thimble of caesium chloride (a caesium salt made with a radioisotope, caesium-137) encased in a shielding canister made of lead and steel with an iridium window. The source was positioned in a container of the wheel type, where the wheel turns inside the casing to move the source between the storage and irradiation positions.

Goiânia’s Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR), located 1 km northwest of Praça Cívica, was abandoned in 1985. A caesium-137 based teletherapy unit was left behind. Over the following years, many homeless, squatters and scavengers entered the building. Eventually, on 13 September 1987, two men — Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira — came across the radioactive teletherapy head and took it with them in a wheelbarrow to dos Santos Alves's house about 0.6 km north of the clinic. There they partly dismantled the equipment, taking the billiard ball-sized cesium capsule out of the protective rotating head. The gamma radiation emitted by the capsule's iridium window made the men nauseated after a couple of days, but they assumed it was due to something they ate. The exposure eventually caused localized burns to their bodies and one later had to have an arm amputated.

More than 240 people were exposed to radiation when a junkyard dealer in Goiania, Brazil, broke open an abandoned radiation therapy machine and removed a small highly radioactive cake of cesium chloride. Children, attracted to the bright blue of the radioactive material, touched it and rubbed it on their skin, resulting in the contamination of several city blocks which had to be demolished.

A cesium-137 radioactive source was left in an abandoned clinic in the city of Goiânia, capitol of the Brazilian state of Goiás. Scavengers took the massive device, gouged out the iridium window, which allowed high gamma radiation and a beautiful blue light to escape, and sold it to a junk-yard owner. The blue glow of the small cylinder of cesium chloride that was inside the device made it appear very valuable, so it was broken into pieces and used for decorative or magical purposes, including rubbing on the skin. A six-year-old girl ingested some of it. At least 244 persons had measurable contamination of cesium chloride on or in their bodies, with twenty of them being seriously radiated. Ten of the twenty had extensive decontamination and radiation-damage treatment. To date four of these have died.