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Published May 18, 2018

Curiosity is a very human thing. They say it killed the cat, but it has also been the driving force behind basically every scientific and technological advance we’ve made. In this way, it is very much a double edged blade. We are also a social species, so when we find something that makes us curious, it’s natural to want to share it with our friends and family.

But curiosity isn’t just bad for cats.

AI generated image from Midjourney

On the 13th of September, 1987, two men entered an abandoned property not far from the airport in Goiânia, in the Brazilian state of Goiás. They were looking for anything that might be of value – something like scrap metal; this was one of the poorer parts of the city, and they were presumably just trying to make a living for their families.

These two men, Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira, found some abandoned equipment which looked a bit like a dentist’s chair with a large telescope attached. They didn’t know what it was, and didn’t know the meaning of the symbols on it, but they thought looked valuable, so they set about taking it apart. They managed to remove a section which had expensive-looking shiny stainless steel casing, and put it in a wheelbarrow to transport it about half a kilometre to Alves’ home.

That evening, they both got sick. They assumed it was something they had eaten.

The next day, Pereira was still sick. He had diarrhoea, felt dizzy, and his left hand started to swell up. On the fifteenth, he went to a local clinic. They told him it was probably an allergic reaction to some bad food, and sent him home to rest. He stayed home for the next week, probably feeling pretty sorry for himself.

Meanwhile, Alves kept going back to the chunk of equipment, which they’d left under a mango tree in his garden, still trying to take it apart.

He made a tiny opening in a particular part of it with a screwdriver, and saw a deep blue light coming from inside. Sticking the screwdriver in again, he managed to pull out a little bit of powder.

At this point, he apparently thought it was some kind of gunpowder, so he tried to set light to it. It didn’t ignite.

He did, however, succeed in taking the thing apart, and then sold the pieces to a nearby scrapyard. 

The location of the Ferreira scrapyard. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The manager of the scrapyard, Devair Alves Ferreira, later related his first encounter with this particular bit of scrap.

“Around 10 o’clock in the morning a young man appeared, whom I did not know, in the junkyard. He offered me a piece of lead that should weigh between 80 and 100 pounds. I said I needed documents because of the large amount of material. He agreed and said that in the afternoon he would bring the documents. At about 5:00 PM, he appeared and asked for a borrowed wheelbarrow and an employee of mine to help him carry the item. I weighed the lead and gave 98 pounds.”

There was another piece, too. Devair described it as coming “with a stainless steel cap, which looked like a cheese with a little hole in the side.”

That part, he thought, had no value. He left it in the warehouse. That evening, however, he noticed a blue glow coming from it. He thought it looked pretty. He also thought that something glowing like that had to be valuable – or perhaps even supernatural. Whichever it was, he was curious.

So he took it home, and showed it to his wife, Gabriela Maria.

They were both curious about the glow, and the powder inside the piece which seemed to produce it, and spent some time admiring it. They showed it to their friends and neighbours.

Ernesto Selizardo Fabiano took a crystallised piece home in his pocket; he thought it would be a lovely thing to set into a ring for his wife. Ferreira also passed bits around his family.

His brother Ivo took some home. His six year old daughter, Leide das Neves Ferreira, was particularly fascinated by it. She played with it until she was called to dinner. Like many children, she forgot to wash her hands.

Blue powder on hands. Source: Unsplash

When Leide’s aunt, Luiza Odet, visited, the little girl wanted to show the pretty stuff to her, too. “Auntie, come and see the little pebble that Father brought.” Playfully, Ivo said he’d make his sister-in-law look beautiful, and rubbed some of the glowing powder on her neck.

Like Pereira, Devair and Gabriela Maria Ferreira became sick, with vomiting and diarrhoea. Like Pereira, Gabriela Maria went to hospital, and like Pereira she was told that it was something she had eaten. Her mother, who lived some way away, came to stay for a few days to look after her.

Back in the scrapyard, Ferreira’s employees were working on the parts. Israel Baptista dos Santos, 22,  and Admilson Alves de Souza, 18, were trying to extract the lead from them. On the 23rd of September, Wagner Pereira, still sick, was admitted to hospital. 

On the 25th, Devair Ferreira sold the extracted lead and remaining components to another junkyard. 

By the 28th, a number of people were ill. It was Gabriela Maria Ferreira who made the connection; they had all come into contact with these bits of equipment, and thus the glowing powder. She took one of her husband’s employees, Geraldo Guilherme da Silva, to the junkyard the pieces had been sold to, and had him collect them in a plastic bag. With the bag slung over da Silva’s shoulder, they took a bus to the Vigilancia Sanitaria, where she deposited the bag on a doctor’s desk, telling him it was killing her family. 

At first, the doctor left the bag on his desk. Then he decided Ferreira’s statement about it was worrying enough to move it out to a chair in the courtyard, beside the hospital’s external wall.

Gabriela Maria Ferreira and her husband’s employee were sent to a health centre, where it was initially thought that they had contracted a tropical disease. They were therefore sent to the Tropical Diseases Hospital. Wagner Moto Pereira had already been sent there, as had others with similar symptoms, and one of the doctors was starting to suspect that the diagnosis of a tropical disease could be wrong. He contacted another doctor, Alonso Monteiro, who worked at both the Tropical Diseases Hospital and the Toxicological Information Centre, with his suspicions. Dr Monteiro had also already been contacted by the doctor at the Vigilancia Sanitaria, who was concerned that the pieces in Gabriela Maria Ferreira’s bag looked like broken x-ray equipment.

 It was decided that a medical physicist should look at the pieces in the bag at Vigilancia Sanitaria, and fortunately one just happened to be visiting the city at the time. Early the next morning, he was contacted and asked to check the suspicious bag at the hospital.

Walter Mendes Ferreira, the medical physicist, borrowed a radiation detector from the offices of a government agency in Goiania which dealt with uranium prospecting. It was a scintillometer, a sensitive piece of equipment usually used for geological measurements. He turned it on before he reached the Vigilancia Sanitaria, and it immediately went off the scale, no matter where he pointed it. He assumed that it was faulty, and went back to the office to borrow another one. This time, he turned the meter on whilst still at the office. By the time he reached the hospital, at 10:20 am, he knew that the first one wasn’t faulty; there was a significant amount of radioactive contamination in the area.

He found that the doctor who’d been given the bag had been worried enough to call the fire brigade in to deal with it. They didn’t know what it was, either. He was just in time to stop them from simply throwing it in the river. Instead, he persuaded them to evacuate the hospital.

The doctor explained where the bag had come from, and accompanied Walter Ferreira to Devair Ferreira’s scrapyard. The radiation detector went off the scale in a wide area around the scrapyard, so they persuaded him, his family and many of his neighbours to evacuate for their safety. Then, at 1 pm, Walter Ferreira went to the offices of the Secretary of Health for Goias State to inform the authorities of the situation. At first, officials there didn’t believe him; they didn’t think it was anything important enough to bother the Secretary of Health with, but eventually they were persuaded.

From there, matters escalated quickly. The Director of the Department of Nuclear Installations in CNEN – the Brazilian National Nuclear Energy Commission – was contacted, as the nominated co-ordinator for nuclear emergencies, or NEC. He suggested that the hospital physicist at the Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia, or IGR may be able to help; this was a nearby private radiotherapy institute, which would have a wider range of instruments to hand.

It was an institute that had moved to new premises two years before. 

From a property not far from the airport.

Where they had left behind a caesium-137 based teletherapy unit, which looked a bit like a dentist’s chair with a large telescope attached.

A radiotherapy unit in use, 1980. Source: Unsplash

Once the IGR had been contacted, the authorities had a pretty good idea where the contamination had originated from. It took some time to find out for certain, however, and this meant that there was still some uncertainty as to exactly what they were dealing with.

The emergency services were informed of the situation, and the Tropical Diseases Hospital was contacted to let them know what their patients were really suffering from. At the same time, arrangements were made to use the Olympic Stadium in the city as a triage site; the contamination was so widespread that they needed an area of this size to receive and examine the huge number of people who could potentially have been contaminated. By February 1988, 125,000 people had been screened.

Of these, 260 people were either suspected or confirmed to be contaminated. Some simply had contamination on their shoes or clothes; they could be decontaminated and released. Others had much more serious exposure.

22 people at the stadium were identified as high exposure risks; partly because of their symptoms or the readings taken from them, and partly because of familial closeness to those already identified as victims. They were segregated into tents away from the other people at the stadium, while those already at the Tropical Diseases Hospital were put into isolation.

External decontamination was relatively straightforward. Washing thoroughly with soap and water could remove between 50 and 80 percent of the radioactive material. Unfortunately, this wasn’t done immediately, because experts were not on hand quickly enough, and until they were on the scene, it was thought that allowing the victims to wash would just contaminate the water.

For those who had internal contamination, it was a lot more difficult. The radioactive material on their skin could be washed away, but whenever they sweated, their perspiration brought out more contamination from inside them, so they had to be washed repeatedly to keep cleaning it off. In addition, they were given Prussian Blue, a special liquid to soak up the radiation and allow it to be excreted safely.

Some of the victims suffered horrible lesions on their skin. 

Wagner Moto Pereira had a large lesion on one hand, the same shape as the opening on the capsule they’d removed, presumably where he’d held his hand over it to steady the unwieldy chunk of metal. 

Luiza Odet, Leide’s aunt, returned early from a trip to visit family in Annapolis because her neck hurt so badly she couldn’t sleep. It was blistered, and looked like it had been flayed. 

Ernesto Selizardo Fabiano, the man who had put a piece in his pocket to make a ring for his wife, had a severe lesion on his thigh where it had lain close to his skin. His wife, who had thrown the piece in the toilet when people started getting sick, had burns on her fingers. 

Geraldo Guilherme da Silva, who had carried the bag of parts to the hospital for Gabriela Maria Ferreira, had lesions on his back, where he had slung the bag over his shoulder.

These injuries were treated by removing the dead skin, decontaminating the area as much as possible and applying antiseptic and analgesic solutions. Debridements and skin grafts were also needed in some cases. Sometimes, amputation was necessary. Wagner Moto Pereira lost a finger on his left hand, the others atrophied and disfigured. Roberto Santos Alves lost his entire right forearm.

Little Leide had lesions in her mouth and throat, because she had eaten while the powder was on her hands, and ulcers on her tongue. She could not eat in the last few days of her life, and suffered constant nose bleeds. She died on the 23rd of October 1987. When she was laid to rest in a public cemetery in Goiania, some two thousand people turned out, not in commemoration of her short life, but to protest her burial. Even though she had been placed in a special fibreglass, lead-lined coffin, they feared that her remains would poison the land.

Her aunt, Gabriela Maria Ferreira, died on the same day as Leide.

Israel Baptista dos Santos and Admilson Alves de Souza, the two scrapyard employees who had taken the pieces apart to extract the lead, also died; de Souza developed lung damage, internal bleeding, and heart damage, and died on October the 18th, while dos Santos succumbed to serious respiratory and lymphatic complications on the 27th. Post-mortem examination of dos Santos showed that the most severe lesions were on his inner thighs and crotch area; it’s entirely possible that he gripped the capsule between his legs whilst working on it.

Somewhat remarkably, these were the only four direct fatalities of the incident. Despite high levels of exposure, Wagner Moto Periera, Roberto Santos Alves, Devair Ferreira and Ivo Ferreira all survived. However, Devair did not recover from the incident. He suffered from depression, and binge drinking led to cirrhosis of the liver. He died in 1994. His brother Ivo also suffered from depression in the aftermath, and died of emphysema in 2003.

The emotional toll on those involved – not just the victims, but those responding to the incident – was incredible. Some of the patients wanted to escape their isolation ward in the hospital by throwing themselves from the window. There were no guards, so the radiation experts had to restrain the patients themselves. They worked long and hard hours, because many non-specialised medical staff were so afraid of radiation sickness that they refused to help.

Meanwhile, the path of the contamination was being tracked across the city, and beyond. Everywhere that the caesium capsule had been since it was taken had to be surveyed for contamination; not only that, but they had to track everywhere people had been after they had been in contact with the capsule, because the powdery nature of the caesium meant that it was easy for people to take the contamination with them. Contamination was found in two houses in Annapolis, where Luiza Odet had visited. Gabriela Maria Ferreira’s mother had also taken contamination home with her. The original salvagers dealt with scrap paper as well as metal, and contaminated paper and metal was found as far away as Sao Paulo.

The city was surveyed from the air, by car and with hand-held detectors to establish exactly where the contamination had spread to.

At least fourteen different areas of the city were found to be contaminated. Five hospitals, three buses, fourteen cars, fifty thousand rolls of toilet paper, a number of banknotes and five pigs were also affected.

All in all, significant contamination was found in 85 houses. 41 needed to be evacuated.

Julio Cesar was a student living near to the home of Roberto Santos Alves, where the capsule had sat beneath the mango tree for several days. 

“The police woke us up at 3 in the morning on September 29th and told us we had to leave because it was dangerous. We were thrown out on the street, forced to move to a hotel, and we weren’t allowed to take anything with us, not even our clothes.”

Rua 57, location of Roberto Santos Alves’ home. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Other areas were not so heavily contaminated, and evacuation was not deemed necessary. Inan Borges Moreira lived next door to the home of Wagner Mota Pereira. In an interview at the time, she said,

“The authorities say it is OK to stay here, but everyone is confused. Some people on the block are leaving, some people are staying. I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Everything that they left behind had to be checked for contamination. If it was not radioactive, it could then be put in plastic bags and returned to the owners. If it was contaminated, the decision had to be made by the authorities as to whether to decontaminate it or simply destroy it. Usually, such decisions are made based purely on the financial value of the item, and how easy it would be to clean it. In this case, many of the contaminated items were things of personal and sentimental value; photographs, jewellery, family keepsakes. It was acknowledged that, in those cases, more effort needed to be focussed on decontamination, but it still meant that some irreplaceable items were ultimately lost.

Everything inside a contaminated house had to be taken out. A suitable nearby area was covered with plastic sheeting so that everything could be examined there. Vacuum cleaners with highly efficient filters were used to clean the house and remove every last speck of dust. Painted surfaces were stripped. The floors, which were generally ceramic, were treated with Prussian Blue and acid. 

Seven houses were so affected that they could not be decontaminated. They were carefully demolished, and all the debris was packed away in special containers. 

There was a huge amount of contaminated waste to be dealt with; 3,800 industrial drums, 1,400 metal boxes, ten shipping containers and six VBA’s – cylindrical containers with reinforced concrete walls 20cm thick – were needed to hold it all. This was all eventually contained within two specially built tanks to isolate it completely from the environment, and deposited in a remote, but carefully monitored, location.

When things settled down, it was possible to start looking at how this had been able to happen in the first place. 

The radiotherapy machine had been purchased by IGR in 1977, but when they moved premises in 1985 they got involved in a dispute with the owners of their old property, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. That’s why the machine got left behind.

On the 4th of May, 1987, one of the owners of IGR, Carlos Figueiredo Bezerril, wanted to remove some of the things that had been left behind at the old clinic site. Saura Taniguti, who was at the time director of Ipasgo, the institute of insurance for civil servants, used police force to prevent him from doing so. Figueiredo was in no way uncertain about the dangers of leaving the radiotherapy machine behind; he contacted the president of Ipasgo, Lício Teixeira Borges, and told him that he should take responsibility “for what would happen with the caesium bomb.”

The matter was in the hands of the courts when the theft took place. The Court of Goias acknowledged that they were aware of the radioactive material at the abandoned property on the 11th of September 1987, just a couple of days prior to the theft, and they had posted a security guard there to protect the hazardous equipment. The guard was apparently absent when Alves and Pereira broke in.

With a court order preventing IGR from retrieving the radiotherapy machine, all they had been able to do was write letters to the National Nuclear Energy Commission, trying to warn them of the danger inherent in leaving it there in an abandoned building.

The demographics of Goiania also played into these events. Had the abandoned hospital site been in a more affluent area, it would have been a less likely target for scavengers. Any that did come across it might also have had a higher chance of being literate, and therefore understanding the warning signs the machine bore.

As it was, many people in Goiania at that time were illiterate. They didn’t know what the trefoil radioactive symbol signified. 

Inan Borges Moreira didn’t blame her neighbour, Pereira, or his friend Santos Alves.

“It was not their fault. They didn’t know. But perhaps some blame must rest with our society, which allows a low class of people to scavenge in order to live.”

Criminal charges were brought against the doctors who owned IGR; they were charged with criminal negligence, because they had originally been responsible for the caesium. However, since it was the clinic which bought the substance, rather than the doctors themselves, they could not be found liable. One of the doctors owning IGR and the hospital’s physicist were, however, made to pay a fine for the derelict condition of the building. 

In 2000, the National Nuclear Energy Commission CNEN was ordered to pay compensation to the direct and indirect victims of the incident, and their descendants to the third generation. 

Those who survived would suffer more than just the physical consequences. There was a lot of fear surrounding the incident, and as a result a lot of prejudice against those who had been involved. People from Goiania found it difficult to travel in the aftermath; hotels would refuse them rooms, pilots would refuse to fly if they were passengers, bus drivers wouldn’t allow them to board, and even driving their own cars wasn’t safe – some people were stoned because they had Goiania license plates on their vehicles. The city’s products were boycotted in other states for a while, because people thought they would be contaminated. Eventually these fears passed.

There is a little comfort in the knowledge that an incident like this is highly unlikely to happen again. Caesium-137 has been replaced in radiotherapy use by cobalt, which is a solid substance and not so easily spread around as the caesium-137 powder in this case. The authorities have greater control over radiation sources; they’re recorded in a database, so in the event of an incident the exact specifications can be accessed quickly. And, with hindsight, any response to a radioactive dispersal incident can learn from Goiania; a responding team today would be better prepared to deal with it.

But for Lourdes das Neves Ferreira, mother of little Leide, it will never be over.

“Forget, forget there is no way. That is why I always try to keep my mind occupied.”

Thanks this episode go to:

I’d like to say a special thank you to Patreon supporters Skeleheron and Mish Liddle, and to all of you for listening and reading.

Supporting the Great Disasters podcast on Patreon can give you access to exclusive content, including at least one mini-episode per month, and helps the show keep going. The first mini-episode was on the Cavan Orphanage Fire, and the latest is about the Byford Dolphin Incident.


Sources and Further Reading:

The Radiological Incident in Goiânia – International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, 1988. (PDF)

The Goiânia Radiation Incident: A Failure of Science and Society

Wikipedia article on the incident

Survivors of Cesium 137 – Wound in the Soul (In Portuguese)

Country is prepared to act in radioactive incident (Archived, in Portuguese)

All That Glitters (contemporary American news article)

Time: Brazil Deadly Glitter

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