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Goiânia accident

The Goiânia accident was an incident of radioactive contamination in central Brazil that killed several people and injured many others. On September 13, 1987, an old radiation source was scavenged from an abandoned hospital in Goiânia, the capital of the central Brazilian state of Goiás. It was subsequently handled by several people and caused serious radioactive contamination, resulting in a number of deaths.


Nature of the source

The object was a small, highly radioactive thimble of cesium chloride (a cesium salt made with a radioisotope of cesium) 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.

Comparison of radioactivities


1971 74,000
when stolen (1987) 50,900
recovered 44,000
unrecovered (c. 1987) 7,000
unrecovered (c. 2007) 4,400
smoke detector 0.000000037

The source contained 74 Terabecquerels (TBq) in 1971. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) describes the container—51 millimeters (2 inches) in diameter and 48 millimeters (1.8 inches) long—as an “international standard capsule.” The specific activity of the active solid was about 814 TBq·kg-1 of Cesium 137 (half life of 30 years). The dose rate at one meter from the source was 4.56 gray per hour (456 rad·hr−1). It was made in the United States at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and was used as a radiation source for radiation therapy at the Goiânia hospital.[1]

The IAEA document indicates that:

  • The dose rate due to external irradiation from uniform contamination of the ground by 137Cs is 1.6×10-12 Sv·h−1·Bq−1·m³.
  • The internal dose for ingestion is 1.2×10-8 Sv·Bq−1
  • The internal dose for inhalation is 8.7×10-9 Sv·Bq−1

The IAEA states that the source contained 50.9 TBq (1375 Ci) when it was stolen, and that about 44 TBq (1200 Ci, 87%) of radioactivity has been recovered during the clean up operation. This means that 7 TBq remained in the environment; it will have decayed to about 4.4 TBq by 2007.

For comparison, the average modern smoke detector contains about 37 kBq (1 μCi) of 241Am.[2]


Theft of the source

When Goiânia’s Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR)[1] clinic was abandoned in 1985, the cesium capsule was left behind. Over the following years, many squatters and scavengers entered the building. Eventually, on September 13, 1987, two people—Roberto dos Santos and Wagner Mota—came across the radioactive capsule and took it with them in a wheelbarrow. They partly dismantled the equipment, subjecting themselves to external gamma radiation, which caused localized burns to their bodies; one later had to have an arm amputated.

The source is opened

The two men attempted to further open the casing, but failed. They did, however, break the iridium window which allowed them to see the cesium chloride emitting a deep blue light. The exact mechanism by which the light was generated was not known at the time the IAEA report was written. The light is thought to be either fluorescence or Cherenkov radiation associated with the absorption of moisture by the source. Similar blue light was observed at Oak Ridge during the disencapsulation of a 137Cs source in 1988.

The source is sold as scrap

Roberto dos Santos and Wagner Mota sold the object to a junkyard owner—Devair Alves Ferreira (radiation dosage 7.0 Gy, survived)—who intended to make a ring for his wife out of the strange and beautiful blue material.

The sale to the junkyard owner led to many more people becoming contaminated:

  • Junkyard workers hammered open the lead casing. Two of them died later of radiation poisoning (doses of 4.5 and 5.3 Gy, respectively).
  • Devair Alves Ferreira’s brother Ivo scraped dust out of the source, spreading some of it on the floor of his house. His 6-year-old daughter, Leide das Neves Ferreira, later ate while sitting on the floor, absorbing some of the radioactive material (1.0 GBq, total dose 6.0 Gy). She was also fascinated by the blue-glow of the powder, applied it to her body and showed it off to her mother. When an international team arrived to treat her, she was confined to an isolated room in the hospital because the hospital staff were afraid to go near her. She died a month later (23 October) and was buried in a lead coffin, sealed with concrete.
  • Several people who visited the home came into contact with the dust and spread it around the local neighborhood and to other towns nearby.
  • Another brother of the junkyard owner used the dust to paint a blue cross on his skin. He also contaminated the animals at his farm, several of which died.

The junkyard owner’s wife, Maria Gabriela Ferreira (dosage 5.7 Gy), was the first to notice that many people around her had become severely sick all at the same time. She first suspected the culprit was a beverage they had shared, but an analysis of the juice showed nothing untoward. Her mother came and visited her to nurse her, getting a dose of 4.3 Gy and an intake of 10 MBq (270 µCi).

On September 25, Devair Alves Ferreira sold the scrap metal to another scrapyard.

The source is understood to be dangerous

On September 28 (15 days after the item was found) Maria finally suspected the scrap metal to be the cause. She took the remains of the source by bus in a plastic bag to a hospital, and the physician there rightly suspected that it was dangerous. He placed it in his garden on a chair to increase the distance between himself and the object. Because the remains of the source were kept in a plastic bag, the level of contamination at the hospital was low. The IAEA report suggests that 90% of the radioactivity originally in the source had escaped from it by this point.

A reconstruction of the bus cabin was created at a later time, and it is estimated that a hypothetical passenger who remained in the worst possible location for the entire bus trip (15 minutes) would have suffered a dose of less than 0.3 Sv to the legs. This dose would not cause any injury or acute radiation syndrome. If this hypothetical passenger had been separated by 1.4 meters from the source, then the leg dose would decline to 0.04 Sv. While these prospective leg doses are larger than the normal organ limits for the general public, they are unlikely to cause serious harm in either the short or long term.

The source's radioactivity is detected

In the morning of September 29 a visiting medical physicist (named WF in the IAEA report) used a scintillation counter borrowed from NUCLEBRAS (a national government agency which is involved in the nuclear fuel cycle, including searching for uranium ore) to confirm the presence of radioactivity. The accident response started that evening. Maria, the wife of the scrap metal yard owner, died a month later (23 October) from the effects of the radiation.

Health outcomes

The most contaminated people

The outcomes for the 46 most contaminated people are shown in the bar chart below. Several people survived high doses of radiation. This is thought in some cases to be due to the fact that the dose was fractionated. Given time, the body's repair mechanisms will reverse cell damage caused by radiation. If the dose is spread over a long time period these mechanisms can ameliorate the effects of radiation poisoning.

When ingested, radioactive cesium replaces calcium in the bones. The radioactivity then induces cancer in the bone marrow, which then causes leukemia. The following data is too early to show this. In the future, leukemia will affect around 20% of those who ingested the radioactive cesium dust.

Other affected persons

Afterwards, about 100,000 people were examined for radioactive contamination; 244 were found to have significant levels of radioactive material in or on their body. Of this group 129 persons had internal contamination. The majority of the internally contaminated persons only suffered small doses (< 50 mSv, less than a 1 in 400 risk of getting cancer as a result).

1000 persons were identified as having suffered a dose which was greater than one year of background radiation; it is thought that 97% of these people had a dose of between 10 and 200 mSv (between a 1 in 2000 and a 1 in 100 risk of developing cancer as a result).

Legal matters

In light of the deaths caused, the three doctors who had owned and run the hospital were charged with criminal negligence. The main cause of this incident was the severe negligence of the former hospital management who left behind such a dangerous item. The accident demonstrated the importance of keeping an inventory and monitoring of all strong radiation sources by public authorities, which now is legally required in many countries.


Objects and places

Topsoil had to be removed from several sites, and several houses were demolished. All the objects from within those houses were removed and examined. Those which were found to be free of radioactivity were wrapped in plastic bags, while those which were contaminated were either decontaminated or disposed of as waste. In industry, the choice between decontaminating or disposing objects is based only on the economic value of the object and the ease of decontamination. The IAEA recognized in this case, however, that to reduce the psychological impact of the event, greater effort should be taken to clean up items of personal value, such as jewelry and photographs. It is not clear from the IAEA report to what degree this was practiced.

Means and methods

After the houses were emptied, vacuum cleaners were used to remove dust before the surfaces and plumbing were examined for radioactivity. Painted surfaces could be scraped, while floors were treated with acid and Prussian blue mixtures. Roofs were vacuumed and hosed but two houses had to have their roofs removed. The waste from the clean up was moved out of the city to a remote place for storage.

Potassium alum dissolved in hydrochloric acid was used on clay, cement, soil and roofs. Cesium has a high affinity for many clays.

Organic solvents, followed by potassium alum dissolved in hydrochloric acid, were used to treat waxed/greased floors and tables. Sodium hydroxide solutions, also followed by dissolved potassium alum, were used to treat synthetic floors, machines and typewriters.

Prussian blue was used to internally decontaminate many humans. The urine was treated with ion exchange resin to compact the waste for ease of storage.

Recovery considerations

The clean up operation was much harder for this event than it could have been because the source was opened, and the fact that the active material was water soluble. A sealed source need only be picked up, placed in a lead pot and transported to the radioactive waste storage. In the recovery of lost sources, the IAEA recommends careful planning and using a crane or other device to place shielding (such as pallet of bricks or a concrete block) near the source to protect recovery workers.


It is possible to decontaminate high value scrap metals, but this is best done long before the contaminated metal goes to a scrap yard.[3][4]

Recently, the spread of the contamination in this case has also been used to estimate the effect of a radiological weapon.[citation needed]

Popular culture

  • Italian singer-songwriter Angelo Branduardi wrote the song "Miracolo a Goiania", in his 1988 album Pane e Rose, in which he imagines the excited dialogue between the people involved in the accident.
  • Panamanian singer-songwriter Rubén Blades wrote the song "El Cilindro", in his 1992 album Amor y Control, also about the accident.
  • "Still Alive", by group Ankla on their 2006 debut album Steep Trails, describes the event and its effect on the victims.

See also


  1. ^ a b (16 Sep 1998) The Radiological Accident in Goiânia. IAEA. ISBN 92-0-129088-8. 
  2. ^ Smoke Detectors & Radiation. U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved on 2007-11-04.
  3. ^
  4. ^
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Goiânia_accident". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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