Nothing goes to waste where people are living on the breadline, and few opportunities to make a little extra money get overlooked. And so it was in the Brazilian town of Goiânia in September 1987. Scavengers were combing through an abandoned clinic when they found a radiation therapy source that had been carelessly left.
The lead and steel canister looked innocent enough, but its deadly heart was a tiny capsule with an iridium window, full of highly radioactive caesium chloride. Two men found the container and trundled their trophy home in a wheelbarrow. It was the start of a process subsequently described as one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.
They would survive – though both soon felt nauseous and later developed radiation burn, while one eventually had an arm amputated. Before the danger became apparent they broke open the iridium window and found the radiation source, which emitted a strong blue light. After five days, the finders sold the partially dismantled unit to a local scrapyard, where the glowing source became an object of curiosity that attracted dozens of spectators.
A brother of the scrapyard owner took some caesium home, where his six-year-old daughter played with the lethal powder. She would die a month later and be buried in a lead coffin encased in concrete. Her aunt would also be a victim. Gabriela Maria Ferreira – wife of scrapyard owner Devair Ferreira – was the first to appreciate that something was desperately wrong and took the deadly capsule to a hospital where it was identified as dangerous. Her action undoubtedly saved lives, though not her own. The other two immediate fatalities were young men employed at the scrapyard. In all, around 250 people were irradiated, some seriously, and the authorities were forced to mount a major clean-up of contaminated locations.
When was the Goiânia Accident: From September 13 1987
Where was the Goiânia Accident: Goiânia, Goiâs State, Brazil
What was the Goiânia Accident death toll: Four directly attributable deaths and severe contamination of another 250 people.
You should know: Three doctors from the abandoned clinic were charged with criminal negligence for leaving such a dangerous piece of equipment behind when the facility was closed down.