09 August 2020

Goiânia, Brazil, 1987

Most of us have heard the names Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.  If you’re old enough, you probably even remember the incidents that made those names famous—or infamous.

Both names are locations of immense nuclear accidents: Three Mile Island in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, in March 1979 and Chernobyl in the Ukraine, part of the Soviet Union at the time, in April 1986.  Both of these were accidents at nuclear power plants

While no deaths or injuries were directly attributed to the TMI near-meltdown, anecdotal reports asserted that deaths from cancer increased in the region surrounding the reactors; there had also been an increased incidence of cancer among wild and farm animals in the area according to similar reports.  The TMI reactors are no longer operating, though they’re still standing.

The Chernobyl accident involved an explosion and fire which killed two members of the reactor staff immediately; 31 plant workers and emergency responders died in the days and months following the explosion.  Approximately 14 cancer deaths within the next 10 years have been blamed on radiation.

The site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is still uninhabitable and stands as a ghost site with eerie music playing over the PA system.  The exclusion zone covers 1,000 square miles, including the nearby city of Pripyat (then with a population of just under 50,000 residents).

I suspect, however, that far fewer people know of the nuclear accident in Goiânia, Brazil, an interior city about 800 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, that occurred in September 1987.  It was far less spectacular than TMI and Chernobyl because it didn’t happen at a nuclear power plant and there was no melt-down or explosion.

The cause wasn’t a technical malfunction, it was carelessness and curiosity.  The people effected weren’t plant workers, scientists, or emergency responders.  They were ordinary residents of the city, the 11th-largest in Brazil (with a population in 1987 of about 1 million—around the size of San Jose, California) and the second-largest in the Central-West Region.  Most of the afflicted were poor and working-class Goianienses.

If you’re a regular reader of Rick On Theater, you might recognize the name of this Brazilian city (currently with a population of 1½ million), the capital of the large state of Goiás, from my report on Leonardo Shapiro’s production of Strangers with his Shaliko Company (posted on ROT on 3 and 6 March 2014).  The Goiânia tragedy formed the narrative core of the Shaliko play.

But Strangers isn’t a documentary play and my report on the production wasn’t a journalistic feature.  Neither Shapiro nor I gave more than the barest details about this disaster, which killed four immediately, irradiated another 249, with 20 of those suffering significant radiation exposure, and contaminated 85 homes which had to be abandoned and required 200 people to be evacuated from 42 of them.  About 112,000 Goianienses had to be examined and tested for radioactive contamination.

For more than a month after the accident, products of Goiânia and the surrounding area, a farming region whose economy is built on grain and beef, dropped in price by 49%--even though none was shown to be irradiated.  2,500 square miles of the city’s center were cordoned off for decontamination, which took over a year.  The clean-up took 11 weeks and 130,000 man-hours. 

During the clean-up, topsoil had to be removed from several sites.  Forty-two houses were demolished and the objects and personal possessions in them had to be incinerated.  It was the largest radiological accident ever in Brazil and all of Latin America.  

The Goiânia nuclear event was the largest accident in the world that wasn’t at a nuclear power plant.  Time magazine labeled the accident one of the world’s “worst nuclear disasters” and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) called it “one of the world’s worst radiological incidents.”

The IAEA classified the Goiânia radiation accident as a Level 5 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.  That’s an “Accident with wider consequences,” meaning that its impact is felt beyond the immediate event area.  It’s the same category as the Three Mile Island near-meltdown. 

(Chernobyl and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan are Level 7, the highest level of radiation event—and the only two accidents in that class.  There’s only been one Level 6 accident, at another Soviet reactor in 1957.)

So, if there wasn’t a reactor meltdown or a power-plant explosion, what caused all this destruction of lives and homes and environment? 

This is where the carelessness and curiosity came into play.

There are many accounts of what occurred to precipitate the Goiânia radiation accident.  They come from interviews with different participants and witnesses and while the versions of events are consistent overall, there are some minor inconsistencies.  I’ve pieced together a narrative from several sources, including both journalistic media and scientific reports, that I think is fairly accurate.

On Sunday, 13 September 1987, two unemployed men, Roberto dos Santos Alves, 24, and Wagner Mota Pereira, 19, were scavenging for salable metal refuse in downtown Goiânia.  Alves had heard rumors that valuable equipment had been left at the Goiás Institute of Radiotherapy (IGR, for its Portuguese name: Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia), so they snuck into the partly demolished clinic.  

Most of the IGR building, together with some surrounding properties, had been razed.  The IGR treatment rooms, including the one where an out-of-date nuclear-medicine device, described as “a cross between an enormous telescope and a dentist’s chair,” was located, were undemolished but left in a derelict state.  The intact parts of the building were apparently used by vagrants.

The physicians who owned the disused clinic, Orlando Alves Teixeira, Carlos Figueiredo Bezerril, and Criseide Castro Dourado, had moved IGR into new quarters two years earlier, leaving behind an 880-pound nuclear-medicine machine containing a lead-and-steel canister, the sealed radiation source capsule, holding a 93-gram (3⅓-ounce) cake of radioactive cesium (sometimes spelled ‘caesium’) chloride, a salt made with cesium-137.   

Cesium-137, which has a half-life of a little over 30 years, is the same radioactive material that contaminated the Chernobyl site and the Fukushima Daiichi area.  It was also present, among other radioactive substances, in the environment after the TMI accident.  Radiation from cesium-137, or in more modern equipment, cobalt-60, is used to kill cancer cells.  In tiny doses, it helps save lives; in bigger quantities, it kills.

There’d been an extended and convoluted legal debate between IGR and the building’s owner, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, a voluntary Catholic organization, about the disposition of the teletherapy machine and its radioactive element.  Court decisions appeared to prevent the doctors from removing the device. 

A security guard was posted to prevent scavenging and theft, but on 13 September, the guard took a “sick day” to see a movie with his family, leaving the clinic unprotected.

After partially dismantling the machine with a sledgehammer, Alves and Pereira removed the metal component, about the size of a one-gallon paint can, which housed the nuclear source.  The young men hauled their booty, which they thought might have some resale value, in a wheelbarrow to Alves’s home.  They began pulling the device apart.

Later that evening, both men began to throw up.  Unbeknownst to them, they were in the beginning stages of radiation sickness.  Nevertheless, they kept up their efforts to disassemble the mechanism.  On Monday, Pereira began to suffer from diarrhea and dizziness. 

The symptoms of radiation sickness are nausea followed by dizziness, vomiting, and diarrhea.  Infected people may exhibit these symptoms within a few hours after exposure to nuclear radiation.  It’s needless to point out, perhaps, that the working-class people in this tale wouldn’t have had a clue about what they were suffering from.  Most attributed the distress to something they’d eaten. 

It’s one of the tragedies of this event that it took days before someone recognized what they were dealing with. 

Swelling started in Pereira’s left hand, which soon developed a burn of the same size and shape as the radioactive source assembly.  He was probably the first Goianiense to see effects of the nuclear accident.  The 19-year-old eventually had to have several fingers partially amputated.

Two days later, on 15 September, Pereira went to a neighborhood clinic which told him his symptoms were caused by something he ate.  The clinician told him to go home and rest. 

Meanwhile, Alves continued his efforts to dismantle the device.  He eventually got the cesium capsule out of its protective casing.  Alves’s exposure to the radioactive material while he’d been working, however, caused his right forearm to become ulcerated and it would have to be removed.

On 16 September, Alves managed to dig a small hole in the capsule with a screwdriver.  He saw a deep blue light through the tiny opening and he stuck the screwdriver into the canister and scooped out some of the glowing substance.  Thinking it was some kind of gunpowder, Alves tried to light it, but the powder wouldn’t burn.

Ultimately, Alves’s house and its grounds were extensively contaminated.  The house was one of those that had to be demolished and the topsoil removed.

Alves sold the stainless steel canister to 35-year-old scrapyard-owner Devair Alves Ferreira for about $25 on Friday, 18 September.  Thinking the capsule’s contents, particularly the lead, were valuable or even supernatural, the scrap-dealer immediately brought it to his home, which was next to the junkyard.  Ferreira stashed the mechanism in his garage where, that night, he noticed the blue glow from the punctured capsule. 

In daylight, the cesium cake appears dull white or gray, but in the dark, it glows blue.  The salt, cesium chloride,  is granular and coarse.  Some crystals are as large as grains of rice, others as small as dust particles.  

It’s not unlike sodium chloride, ordinary table salt, because it absorbs moisture and forms into cake-like lumps when exposed to the air’s humidity.  That means it can easily stick to clothing, skin, and utensils, and be passed along to food which comes into contact with something contaminated.  Internal contamination can occur if someone eats the adulterated food—the most dangerous form of radiation exposure.

The luminescent material was very alluring, especially to children who considered it to be magical.  Visitors to the Ferreira’s house were mesmerized by the mysterious substance that glowed “‘like a firefly’ in a jar.”   People began to play with it, resulting in significantly dispersing the cesium-137 to people, clothing, furniture, paper, walls, floors, and household pets.  One man slept with it under his bed, another carried a lump around in his pocket.  

It also led to internal exposure in many Goianienses because not a few ingested it either deliberately (because of its supposed magical powers) or accidentally (from eating food irradiated by contact with the powder).

Ferreira brought the seemingly magical, luminescent substance into the house, where he kept it in his living room.  On Monday, 21 September, Ernesto Fabiano, 47, a friend and employee of Ferreira’s, visited the Ferreira house and managed to take the canister apart and pried open the platinum capsule that contained the cesium-137.  He broke the grains of cesium salt apart and sifted it through his fingers; he chose one of the bigger crystals to give to his younger brother, Edson Fabiano, 42, as a gift.

Edson Fabiano, thinking the blue crystal would make a good ring for his 38-year-old wife, Santana Nunes Fabiano, put it in his pocket and went to work.  Later, when Santana Fabiano saw that so many of her friends and neighbors who’d come into contact with the blue dust got sick, she became suspicious and flushed the crystal down the toilet.

Later, during the clean-up, the Fabianos’ septic tank had to be dug up and removed so that other local residents wouldn’t think that the water supply had been contaminated.  Edson Fabiano received intense radiation burns on his hands and on his right thigh, where the cesium-137 chunk intended for his wife’s ring had burned through his trousers.  He required skin grafts.

Ferreira and his wife, 37-year-old Maria Gabriela Ferreira, examined the powder closely.  Over the next three days, he invited friends and family to come look at the strange, glowing substance.  Then on 22 or 23 September, the crumbly cake of radioactive matter was broken into pieces and distributed to family members and friends, who took the mystical powder home for good luck.  

The house was covered with the cesium dust.  The tiny particles of cesium spread from friend to neighbor, parent to child, husband to wife.  Friends and relatives of the Ferreiras who came from other towns carried the crystals back home with them.  The Ferreira family, as you can see, is large in itself, and with cousins and in-laws, family members lived all over the area, spreading the cesium as they moved about..

During this time, Maria Ferreira, who’d slept in bedclothes dusted with the powder, began to fall ill with vomiting and diarrhea. The scrap-seller’s wife was examined at São Lucas Hospital in Rio de Janeiro on the 21st.  Her diagnosis was the same as Wagner Pereira’s, food poisoning from something she’d eaten, and she was sent home to rest.  Maria Ferreira’s esophagus would eventually develop radiation burns and her hair would fall out.

Maria Ferreira’s 57-year-old mother, Maria Gabriela Abreu, traveled to the junkman’s house for two days to nurse her daughter.  She returned home to Inhumas, about 30 miles north of Goiânia, carrying a substantial amount of contamination with her.  She soon became ill herself.

Maria Abreu was interned in the Marcilio Dias Naval Hospital (HNMD) in Rio on 21 October to treat an aggravated hematological condition.  On 26 November, she was transferred to the General Hospital of Goiânia for further treatment.  On 17 December, Maria Abreu was released from the Goiânia hospital and returned home to Inhumas.

Between 22 and 24 September, Devair Ferreira’s employees 22-year-old Israel Batista dos Santos and 18-year-old Admilson Alves de Souza handled and worked on the effectively unshielded remnants of the containment device to extract the lead.  Both incurred high doses of radiation exposure.

Wagner Pereira, one of the original scrap collectors, was admitted on Wednesday, 23 September, to Brasília’s Santa Maria Hospital, where he stayed until 27 September, when the skin effects of radiation exposure were diagnosed as a symptom of some disease, and he was transferred to the Tropical Diseases Hospital (HDT) in Goiânia. 

On 24 September, Ivo Alves Ferreira, Devair’s 39-year-old brother, scraped some of the radioactive dust out of the canister.  He took the powder to his nearby home where he spread some of it on the concrete floor and used some of the cesium chloride dust to paint a cross on his abdomen.  

He carried some of the radioactive powder to his farm and scattered it on the ground; two of his pigs ate some and died.  (Later a total of 23 chickens and ducks, five pigs, two dogs, and two rabbits were killed because they were contaminated.)

Leide das Neves Ferreira, Ivo’s 6-year-old daughter, rubbed the glowing substance on her body like the glitter used at Carnival.  Then she ate a boiled egg that became contaminated with cesium powder from her hands.  About 10 minutes later, the girl was vomiting, but her mother, Lourdes, 35, figured the egg had been rotten.

Both Leide and her aunt would be among the fatalities of the Goiânia radiation accident.  The little girl reportedly received five to six times the lethal dose for an adult—probably because she ingested the substance rather than just getting on her skin.  

The 6-year-old was so radioactive that anyone who came close enough to talk to her would have received radiation equal to a chest x-ray each minute.  When she was hospitalized and an international team came to treat her, they found that she’d been confined to an isolated room because the staff were afraid to get close to her.

Also on 24 September, another brother of the junk dealer, Odesson Alves Ferreira, a 32-year-old city bus-driver, took a piece of the cesium chloride home with him in his pocket by public bus, contaminating hundreds of passengers.  (During the subsequent clean-up, authorities had to dismantle a bus station and decontaminate two buses.)

On Friday, 25 September, Devair Ferreira sold the lead and the remnants of the source assembly to a second scrap-dealer. 

Between 21 and 28 September, heavy rain fell on the Goiânia area.  This not only soaked the radioactive contaminant into the soil for several feet—the ground water was somehow spared pollution—but also soaked the roofs of houses with radioactivity.  Ultimately, this phenomenon caused many houses to be too heavily contaminated for decontamination, necessitating their demolition.

On the other hand, the regular rainy season in the region, usually from October to April, was late in 1987, sparing the city additional environmental pollution and easing the clean-up efforts that started at the end of September.

Maria Ferreira had been the first person known to have noticed that many people around her had become severely ill at the same time after handling the mysterious dust.  She blamed this phenomenon on the glowing powder.  On Monday, 28 September, she and an employee of her husband’s went to the second junkyard and retrieved the remains of the radiation source assembly. 

The two put the mechanism in a bag and took it by bus to the Goiânia office of Health Surveillance of Goiás (VSG), a state agency.  They put the bag on the desk of a doctor from the VSG and Maria Ferreira told him, “This is killing my people.”

The VSG doctor let the bag and its radioactive contents sit on his desk for several hours, until he got worried and took it out into the courtyard and set it on a chair by an external wall.  Meanwhile, Maria Ferreira and her helper were sent to a health center where their symptoms were diagnosed as a tropical disease.

They were transferred to the Tropical Diseases Hospital, where Wagner Pereira had been sent earlier and where several others with the same symptoms had also been examined and given the same diagnosis. 

One doctor, however, began to suspect that the skin lesions of these patients had been caused by radiation exposure.  He contacted another doctor who worked at HDT but was also superintendent of the Toxicological Information Center. 

As it happened, that doctor had already been contacted by the Health Surveillance physician about the suspicious bag Maria Ferriera had left with him.  After the two HDT doctors had reexamined the patients, they decided that there were enough questions that the situation required further investigation. 

They called on a physician at the State Superintendence of the Environment of Goiás (SEMAGO), who proposed that they have a medical physicist look at the suspicious package.  The SEMAGO doctor knew that just such an expert, Walter Mendes Ferreira, happened to be visiting Goiânia at the time..

Early in the morning of Tuesday, 29 September, Walter Ferreira, who’s no relation to the scrap-dealer and his family, confirmed the presence of radioactivity and persuaded the authorities to take immediate action.  The city, state, and national governments all became aware of the incident by the end of the day, and the accident response started that evening. 

The pace of events quickened as the investigators began to appreciate the seriousness of the accident.  The Brazilian government requested assistance from the IAEA, pursuant to the governing international convention, to which Brazil was a signatory. 

Teams, individual experts, and equipment from the international organizations IAEA and the World Health Organization, along with the countries Argentina, France, the Federal Republic of (i.e., West) Germany, Hungary, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States arrived in Goiânia and Rio de Janeiro.  The assistance was in both the medical area, to help in the treatment of the irradiated Goianienses, and the field of decontamination and radioactive disposal.

For 16 days, no one had known that the cause of their sickness was radiation exposure.  People treated at clinics and hospitals during those weeks were just released onto the streets of Goiânia to interact with and contaminate scores and even hundreds of relatives, friends, and neighbors.  Maria Ferreira, by her decision to bring the cesium container to the health authorities and voice her fears, possibly saved many additional lives—although she lost her own.

News of the radiation incident was broadcast on local, national, and international media.  Within days of the announcement, 112,000 people flooded hospitals concerned that they might have been irradiated .  Of those, 249 were found to be contaminated, some with radioactive residue still on their skin.  Ultimately, 20 people showed signs of radiation sickness and required treatment.

In the end, 22 Ferreira family members had direct contact with the cesium-137.  But they unwittingly went on to contaminate others.  One estimate is that a total of 2,000 people received high radiation doses, though not all became infected with radiation disease.  In the end, four Goianienses died from cesium-137 contamination.

On Friday, 23 October, two members of Devair Ferreira’s family became the first to die,  Maria Ferreira, Devair’s 37-year-old wife, became ill about three days after coming into contact with the substance.  Her condition worsened, and she developed hair-loss and internal bleeding, especially of the limbs, eyes, and digestive tract.  She further suffered mental confusion, diarrhea, and acute renal insufficiency before dying at noon of “septicemia and generalized infection” at the Marcilio Dias Naval Hospital—about a month after exposure.

Leide Ferreira, the 6-tear-old niece of the junk-dealer, gradually experienced swelling in the upper body, hair-loss, kidney and lung damage, and internal bleeding; she also suffered from severe lesions on her throat and tongue.  Leide died at HNMD Friday night, also of “septicemia and generalized infection.”

Israel dos Santos, aged 22, was an employee of Devair Ferreira who worked on the radioactive source.  He developed serious respiratory and lymphatic complications and was eventually admitted to hospital.  He died Tuesday, 27 October, at HNMD.

The last to die was the 18-year-old employee of the Ferreira scrapyard, Admilson de Souza.  He had also worked on the radioactive source at the scrapyard and developed lung damage, internal bleeding, and heart damage.  He died at HNMD on Wednesday, 28 October.

By 2012, the Association of Victims of Cesium-137 (Associação das Vítimas do Césio-137), an organization formed in December 1987 by Odesson Ferreira, who became a lifelong activist in behalf of Goianienses who lived near designated radiation hot spots, said that after 25 years, about 1,600 people had been directly affected and about 104 had died from cancer and other problems since the contamination.

Among these later deaths were the brothers Ferreira, Devair and Ivo.  (Odesson survived but suffered radiation burns on the palm of his left hand.)  Both men suffered from the extreme guilt of having introduced the deadly, glowing substance that killed members of their family.

Devair Ferreira survived the cesium contamination despite receiving a high dose of radiation.  He suffered hair loss and problems with several organs, including cancer from the radiation exposure, and died at age 43 on 5 December 1994 of cirrhosis aggravated by binge drinking and depression over his wife’s death.  After his daughter’s death, older brother Ivo Ferreira was also afflicted by depression, which had started him smoking around six packs of cigarettes a day, and died of pulmonary emphysema in July 2003.

As the illnesses spread and the severity increased, Goianienses who lived in the area surrounding Ferreira’s junkyard and house began to be afraid.  Some neighbors thought that the illness that was causing the symptoms exhibited by the Ferreiras’ circle of friends and acquaintances was AIDS, which in 1987 was on its way to being recognized as a worldwide pandemic and carried its own stigma.

Paranoia ran rampant in Brazil and beyond.  While residents of Goiânia shunned those connected with the Ferreiras or who lived in or near the irradiated area, people beyond Goiás and Brazil, “turned the 1 million inhabitants of this central Brazilian city into national pariahs.”

“People are just hysterical,” said Dr. Donald A. Binns, a Brazilian physicist and radiation protection supervisor who worked for the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN).  “They think radiation is like an infectious disease.  It’s in the air.  They can smell it and get contaminated.”  

Health workers in Goiânia spoke of extreme “radiophobia,” the fear of radiation.  One Goianiense, for instance, went out at night hunting stray cats because he was afraid they were radioactive.  After some radioactive money was found, investigators spent hours checking stacks of currency in banks.

In Brazilian states far beyond Goiás, authorities—and even highway police—demanded people produce CNEN certificates to show the bearer wasn’t contaminated.  An estimated 100,000 Goianienses had lined up at a temporary medical center outside the city’s stadium by December to be tested for radioactivity so they could get the certificates.

“Some people have been back here four or five times,” said Binns.  Many residents also brought their pets, clothes, cars, furniture, household appliances—anything they were afraid could have come into contact with the cesium powder.

When little Leide Ferreira was buried in a Goiânia cemetery on Monday, 26 October, her funeral was met by rioters who tried to prevent her burial by using stones and bricks to block the cemetery roadway.  More than 2,000 protestors gathered in the cemetery out of fear that the girl’s corpse would poison the surrounding land. 

At the funerals of Israel dos Santos and Admilson de Souza on Friday, 30 October, 30 camouflage fatigue-and-visor-wearing riot police with shields and batons stood guard.  There were also 90 other officers, some with police dogs.  Goiânia authorities took no chances after the violence at Leide and Maria Ferreira’s burials.

Local residents said that the bodies of cesium-137 poisoning victims should be treated like nuclear waste.  Leide, her aunt, and the other fatalities of the radiation accident were buried in special fiberglass coffins layered on the inside with lead to prevent the spread of radiation.  The coffins weighed 1,200 pounds each and were lowered by cranes into graves specially prepared with concrete linings.

To add insult to injury, the four cesium-137 victims were interred in the paupers’ section of the cemetery.  Their graves were unmarked.

Radiophobia caused businessmen in other parts of South America to cancel orders from Goiás and moved people in other Brazilian cities to stone cars, stop buses from Goiânia, and cancel hotel reservations of travelers from Goiânia.  Two airline pilots were dismissed after they refused to pick up passengers in the city.  

After the accident, the value of property around the affected area dropped.  Many of those who lived in Goiânia wanted to leave, but other Brazilians’ fear of the potential radiation in the region’s air discouraged the purchase and construction of new homes in and near Goiânia.

In an apartment complex across from the Ferreira junkyard, only 16 of the 88 apartments were occupied as of early November.  According to one report, a woman living there was being threatened with dismissal by her employers unless she moved out.

Some families from the Ferreira’s neighborhood who had to evacuate their homes reported that hotels in Goiânia denied them accommodations once their identities were revealed.  Others said that they’d been forbidden to rent other places to live and that even their relatives refused to put them up.

Mailmen and telephone repairmen were reported to be refusing to make service calls in the part of Goiânia where the junkyard and the Ferreira house were.  The relatives and colleagues of the local residents there avoided them.  Several shops and bars lost their clientele and employees and closed down. 

“If you go on a bus, everyone draws back,” said a woman who lived near the scrap-collector Roberto Alves.  “They make sly remarks.  They say we are from ‘that street,’ that we’re all contaminated, that later everyone on the street is going to die of cancer.”

One old man who came to the medical center to get one of the certificates said that he’d just been forced off a bus for Brasília.  He had tumors on his hands, but he explained that they were old skin cancers   “The driver thought I was dangerous,” he said with panic in his voice.

“A relatively minor accident like this has affected an entire state’s internal and external economy,” said Dr. John S. Petterson, a U.S. specialist in nuclear waste, “and this comes from people’s perception of danger rather than the actual risks.”

Many people who had planned to come to Goiânia for various reasons canceled their trips and concerts were canceled.  Even places far from Goiânia suffered, such as a hot-springs resort 100 miles from the Goiás capital.  The town reported that two months after the radiation incident, hotels in the resort had lost as much as 86% of their usual occupancy.

An international trade fair in Rio de Janeiro in October banned products from Goiás, prompting angry businessmen and officials to launch a campaign in November to combat such discrimination.

Buyers of meat, produce, and goods around Brazil, concerned that radiation may have touched cattle, crops, and manufactured products, shunned goods not just from Goiânia, but from across the rolling cattle lands and expanding urban centers of the state of Goiás, which includes the federal capital of Brasília, 126 miles northeast of Goiânia. 

A Goiânia city council member asserted in early November:

Sales of the state’s products are down almost 50 percent.  People in Sao Paulo, for instance, are no longer accepting our milk, and a Sao Paulo wholesaler rejected a shipment of rice, offering to take the stuff only for half price.  That’s nothing less than blackmail.

As the clean-up and decontamination operations began, about 4,500 tons of topsoil had to be removed from the affected sites at the junkyard, the houses of the infected people, and the many other locations where the cesium dust was spilled.  Houses were evacuated and the possessions inside were removed. 

The dirt and the objects were all sealed in steel drums or ribbed metal boxes.  This included irradiated  pets and livestock, which were killed and interred in the barrels, too.  The Brazilian government, however, hadn’t decided how to dispose of the contaminated materials. 

This problem was partly caused and partly exacerbated by agitation from the local residents, as well as those in other areas of the country where the radioactive waste, which eventually amounted to 13½ tons, might be buried or stored.  They all resisted keeping the stuff “in their backyards,” so to speak. 

Protestors included Indians who lived in remote parts of the Amazon rain forest near one proposed waste disposal  site.  Every Brazilian state declared that it would not accept nuclear waste from Goiânia.

So while the soil, clothes, and household goods were gathered up and sealed in the drums and boxes, the containers themselves remained in the yards and on the grounds of the buildings from which they’d been removed.

Almost 13,000 cubic feet of contaminated material in about 12,500 drums and 1,470 boxes was eventually removed from Goiânia to a temporary storage site in a sparsely populated area 12½ miles from the city. 

Fourteen distinct areas in Goiânia were designated as contaminated, most of them at very low levels.  The inhabitants of an area of 2,400 square yards (half an acre) were evacuated, of which about 290 square yards were determined to be contaminated by cesium chloride.  The quarantined area, which included the street on which Devair Ferreira lived, contained 25 small houses and two junkyards.

The three physicians who owned and operated the clinic, a former owner of IGR, and the IGR physicist were arrested and charged with inflicting fatal wounds.  They claimed that CNEN hadn’t inspected the facility for five years before the radiation accident—though records suggest that it was closer to twice that.  

A special commission appointed by the Goiás legislature concluded that the owners of the clinic and CNEN were both responsible for the occurrence of the accident.  “Culpable homicide” indictments were being prepared against officials at three federal and state agencies, including the director of nuclear installations of CNEN and the coordinator for health inspection in the state of the state of Goiás.

The Federal Court of Justice for the State of Goiás determined that Wagner Pereira and Roberto Alves, the two scavengers who took the radioactive material from the derelict IGR, couldn’t be charged with theft because, having been abandoned, the radiotherapy machine didn’t belong to anyone.  The court judged that the law required that a stolen item had to have belonged to someone else for theft to have occurred.

The two government officials charged saw their cases dismissed because the court decided that though CNEN and the VSG had been guilty of wrongdoing, individual officials couldn’t be charged for the misdeeds of an entire agency.

The three doctors and the physicist at IGR were the only people convicted of anything connected to the Goiânia radiation accident.  They were found guilty of manslaughter and causing bodily harm for having left the hazardous material unprotected and failing to report its presence in an insecure location to the proper authorities.

The four men were sentenced on 29 July 1992 to three years in prison, but the judge reduced the penalty to prohibition to practice their professions, community service, and a fine.  Both the prosecution and the defense appealed the sentence.  On 19 June 1995, the fines were vacated and the prison term was reduced to three years and two months of home confinement; the community service requirement remained.


  1. Kind Invitation: 34 years of the Goiânia cesium accident - free online film festival


    „Radiation victims speak up“

    The International Uranium Film Festival in Rio de Janeiro remembers the worst radiological accident in Latin America that took place in September 1987 in the city of Goiânia in central Brazil. From September 13th to 19th, 2021, the festival will show online and free of charge eight documentaries and movies about this accident caused by the release of highly radioactive Cesium-137. Above all, the festival wants to give the radiation victims of the cesium accident a voice so that they are not forgotten.

    In addition an online meeting with one of the surviving victims, Odesson Alves Ferreira, Brazilian filmmakers and radioactivity scientist Alphonse Kelecom marks the opening of this virtual film event that is supported by the Cinematheque of Rio's Modern Art Museum (MAM Rio). https://uraniumfilmfestival.org/en/to-not-forget

    1. Thank you for the Comment.

      (I didn't appreciate the triple posting, however, so I've deleted the two repeats. One iteration is plenty.)