Radiation events or releases are one of the many things the public health community trains and prepares for, whether an accidental occurrence or a radiological attack. In 1987 in Goiania, Brazil an accident led to 249 people being exposed to radioactive cesium chloride. Twenty people required hospitalization and four died within four weeks of the exposure. Testing and evaluation of 112,000 people was required.
The accident occurred after a radiotherapy clinic relocated and left behind a piece of teletherapy equipment which contained radioactive cesium-137. The building was partially demolished, leaving it unsecured. Two people entered the building and took the piece of equipment because they suspected it might have value. They took it home and attempted to dismantle it, rupturing the capsule that contained the cesium. Later, they sold the remnants of the equipment to a junkyard for scrap. The junkyard owner noticed the material was glowing a bluish color in the dark. Fascinated by this, and unaware of the danger, he showed it to family and friends and distributed rice-sized grains of glowing cesium to several other people. Some applied the powder to their skin like glitter used at carnival time. One man brought it home and placed some on a table next to his six year old child who handled it while eating.
Within five days, several people had started to become ill with vomiting and diarrhea. As more people fell ill, one woman became convinced that the glowing piece of equipment was responsible. She took the remnants of the piece of equipment, put it in a bag and took it by bus to a clinic where she placed it on the desk of a doctor and told him it was killing her family. The doctor left the bag on his desk for a while and then became concerned enough to put it outside.
Many of the victims were initially diagnosed with a tropical disease. One doctor became concerned that the skin lesions he was seeing were radiation burns. He eventually communicated with the doctor who had the bag of contaminated equipment and they decided the matter required further investigation. They contacted a medical physicist to evaluate the contents of the bag. As he was driving to the area, he switched on the measuring device, a scintillometer, which immediately registered a very high reading. Assuming the meter was defective, he went to get another one, which gave the same results.
Having determined the severity of the event, the authorities mobilized the police, fire, and civil defense forces, and designated the Olympic stadium as a staging area to evaluate the large number of patients, some symptomatic and thousands who became concerned as the news spread.
This event is one of the worst nuclear disasters in history and underscores the need for safety and responsibility when dealing with dangerous and regulated substances. It should be noted that the clinic did not fulfill its obligation under the licensing authority when it abandoned the device in the old clinic.
For the full IAEA report about this incident click here