Goiânia accident

Last updated
Goiânia accident
Date13 September 1987
Location Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil
Coordinates 16°40′29″S49°15′51″W / 16.6746°S 49.2641°W / -16.6746; -49.2641 (Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia)
See also § Contamination locations
TypeNuclear accident
CauseTheft of radiation source from abandoned hospital
ParticipantsRoberto dos Santos Alves
Wagner Mota Pereira
Devair Alves Ferreira
(and relatives)
Outcome INES Level 5 (accident with wider consequences)
Non-fatal injuries249 contaminated
A teletherapy radiation capsule composed of the following:
A.) an international standard source holder (usually lead),
B.) a retaining ring, and
C.) a teletherapy "source" composed of
D.) two nested stainless steel canisters welded to
E.) two stainless steel lids surrounding
F.) a protective internal shield (usually uranium metal or a tungsten alloy) and
G.) a cylinder of radioactive source material, often but not always cobalt-60. In the Goiania incident it was caesium-137. The diameter of the "source" is 30 mm. Teletherapy Capsule2.svg
A teletherapy radiation capsule composed of the following:
A.) an international standard source holder (usually lead),
B.) a retaining ring, and
C.) a teletherapy "source" composed of
D.) two nested stainless steel canisters welded to
E.) two stainless steel lids surrounding
F.) a protective internal shield (usually uranium metal or a tungsten alloy) and
G.) a cylinder of radioactive source material, often but not always cobalt-60. In the Goiânia incident it was caesium-137. The diameter of the "source" is 30 mm.

The Goiânia accident [ɡojˈjɐniɐ] was a radioactive contamination accident that occurred on September 13, 1987, in Goiânia, in the Brazilian state of Goiás, after a forgotten radiotherapy source was taken from an abandoned hospital site in the city. It was subsequently handled by many people, resulting in four deaths. About 112,000 people were examined for radioactive contamination and 249 were found to have significant levels of radioactive material in or on their bodies. [1] [2]

Radioactive contamination Presence of radioactive substances where they are undesirable

Radioactive contamination, also called radiological contamination, is the deposition of, or presence of radioactive substances on surfaces or within solids, liquids or gases, where their presence is unintended or undesirable.

Goiânia Municipality in Central-West, Brazil

Goiânia is the capital and largest city of the Brazilian state of Goiás. With a population of 1,466,105, it is the second-largest city in the Central-West Region and the 11th-largest in the country. Its metropolitan area has a population of 2,527,092, making it the 11th-largest in Brazil. With an area of approximately 739 square kilometres, it has a continuous geography with few hills and lowlands, with flat lands in most of its territory, especially the Meia Ponte River, in addition to Botafogo and Capim Puba streams.

Brazil Federal republic in South America

Brazil, officially the Federative Republic of Brazil, is the largest country in both South America and Latin America. At 8.5 million square kilometers and with over 208 million people, Brazil is the world's fifth-largest country by area and the fifth most populous. Its capital is Brasília, and its most populated city is São Paulo. The federation is composed of the union of the 26 states, the Federal District, and the 5,570 municipalities. It is the largest country to have Portuguese as an official language and the only one in the Americas; it is also one of the most multicultural and ethnically diverse nations, due to over a century of mass immigration from around the world.


In the cleanup operation, topsoil had to be removed from several sites, and several hundred houses were demolished. All the objects from within those houses, including personal possessions, were seized and incinerated. Time magazine has identified the accident as one of the world's "worst nuclear disasters" and the International Atomic Energy Agency called it "one of the world's worst radiological incidents". [3] [4]

Topsoil soil type

Topsoil is the upper, outermost layer of soil, usually the top 5 inches (13 cm) to 10 inches (25 cm). It has the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms and is where most of the Earth's biological soil activity occurs. Topsoil is composed of mineral particles, organic matter, water, and air. Organic matter varies in quantity on different soils. The strength of soil structure decreases with the presence of organic matter, creating weak bearing capacities. Organic matter condenses and settles in different ways under certain conditions, such as roadbeds and foundations. The structure becomes affected once the soil is dewatered. The soil's volume substantially decreases. It decomposes and suffers wind erosion.

Time is an American weekly news magazine and news website published in New York City. It was founded in 1923 and originally run by Henry Luce. A European edition is published in London and also covers the Middle East, Africa, and, since 2003, Latin America. An Asian edition is based in Hong Kong. The South Pacific edition, which covers Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, is based in Sydney. In December 2008, Time discontinued publishing a Canadian advertiser edition.

Nuclear and radiation accidents and incidents event that has led to significant consequences to people, the environment or the facility

A nuclear and radiation accident is defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as "an event that has led to significant consequences to people, the environment or the facility." Examples include lethal effects to individuals, radioactive isotope to the environment, or reactor core melt." The prime example of a "major nuclear accident" is one in which a reactor core is damaged and significant amounts of radioactive isotopes are released, such as in the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Description of the source

The radiation source in the Goiânia accident was a small capsule containing about 93 grams (3.3 oz) of highly radioactive caesium chloride (a caesium salt made with a radioisotope, caesium-137) encased in a shielding canister made of lead and steel. 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. [1]

Radioactive decay Process by which an unstable atom emits radiation

Radioactive decay is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by emitting radiation, such as an alpha particle, beta particle with neutrino or only a neutrino in the case of electron capture, or a gamma ray or electron in the case of internal conversion. A material containing unstable nuclei is considered radioactive. Certain highly excited short-lived nuclear states can decay through neutron emission, or more rarely, proton emission.

Caesium chloride chemical compound

Caesium chloride or cesium chloride is the inorganic compound with the formula CsCl. This colorless solid is an important source of caesium ions in a variety of niche applications. Its crystal structure forms a major structural type where each caesium ion is coordinated by 8 chlorine ions. Caesium chloride dissolves in water. CsCl changes to NaCl structure on heating. Caesium chloride occurs naturally as impurities in carnallite, sylvite and kainite. Less than 20 tonnes of CsCl is produced annually worldwide, mostly from a caesium-bearing mineral pollucite.

Caesium-137 isotope of caesium

Caesium-137, or radiocaesium, is a radioactive isotope of caesium which is formed as one of the more common fission products by the nuclear fission of uranium-235 and other fissionable isotopes in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. It is among the most problematic of the short-to-medium-lifetime fission products because it easily moves and spreads in nature due to the high water solubility of caesium's most common chemical compounds, which are salts.

Comparison of radioactivities
Goiânia source TBq
Unrecovered (c. 1987)7
Unrecovered (c. 2016)3
Smoke detector0
A wheel type radiotherapy device which has a long collimator to focus the radiation into a narrow beam. The caesium chloride radioactive source is the blue rectangle, and gamma rays are represented by the beam emerging from the aperture. GoianiaRadiationsource.gif
A wheel type radiotherapy device which has a long collimator to focus the radiation into a narrow beam. The caesium chloride radioactive source is the blue rectangle, and gamma rays are represented by the beam emerging from the aperture.

The activity of the source was 74 terabecquerels (TBq) in 1971. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) describes the container as an "international standard capsule". It was 51 millimeters (2 inches) in diameter and 48 mm (1.8 inches) long. The specific activity of the active solid was about 814 TBq·kg−1 of caesium-137 (half life of 30 years). The dose rate at one meter from the source was 4.56 grays per hour (456 rad·h−1). While the serial number of the device was unknown, thus hindering definitive identification, the device was thought to have been made in the U.S. at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and was used as a radiation source for radiation therapy at the Goiânia hospital. [1]

The becquerel is the SI derived unit of radioactivity. One becquerel is defined as the activity of a quantity of radioactive material in which one nucleus decays per second. The becquerel is named after Henri Becquerel, who shared a Nobel Prize in Physics with Pierre and Marie Curie in 1903 for their work in discovering radioactivity.

International Atomic Energy Agency international organization that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and to inhibit its use for any military purpose, including nuclear weapons

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an international organization that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and to inhibit its use for any military purpose, including nuclear weapons. The IAEA was established as an autonomous organisation on 29 July 1957. Though established independently of the United Nations through its own international treaty, the IAEA Statute, the IAEA reports to both the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council.

The gray is a derived unit of ionizing radiation dose in the International System of Units (SI). It is defined as the absorption of one joule of radiation energy per kilogram of matter.

The IAEA states that the source contained 50.9 TBq (1,380 Ci) when it was taken and that about 44 TBq (1200 Ci, 87%) of contamination had been recovered during the cleanup operation. This means that 7 TBq (190 Ci) remained in the environment; it would have decayed to about 3.5 TBq (95 Ci) by 2016.


Hospital abandonment

The Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR), a private radiotherapy institute in Goiânia, [1] was just 1 km (0.6 mi) northwest of Praça Cívica, the administrative center of the city. It moved to its new premises in 1985, leaving behind a caesium-137-based teletherapy unit that had been purchased in 1977. [5] The fate of the abandoned site was disputed in court between IGR and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, then owner of the premises. [6] On September 11, 1986, the Court of Goiás stated it had knowledge of the abandoned radioactive material in the building. [6]

External beam radiotherapy Treatment of cancer with ionized radiation

External beam radiotherapy (EBRT) is the most common form of radiotherapy. The patient sits or lies on a couch and an external source of ionizing radiation is pointed at a particular part of the body. In contrast to brachytherapy and unsealed source radiotherapy, in which the radiation source is inside the body, external beam radiotherapy directs the radiation at the tumour from outside the body. Orthovoltage ("superficial") X-rays are used for treating skin cancer and superficial structures. Megavoltage X-rays are used to treat deep-seated tumours, whereas megavoltage electron beams are typically used to treat superficial lesions extending to a depth of approximately 5 cm. X-rays and electron beams are by far the most widely used sources for external beam radiotherapy. A small number of centers operate experimental and pilot programs employing beams of heavier particles, particularly protons, owing to the rapid dropoff in absorbed dose beneath the depth of the target.

Society of Saint Vincent de Paul organization

The Society of St Vincent de Paul is an international voluntary organization in the Catholic Church, founded in 1833 for the sanctification of its members by personal service of the poor.

Four months before the theft, on May 4, 1987, Saura Taniguti, then director of Ipasgo, the institute of insurance for civil servants, used police force to prevent one of the owners of IGR, Carlos Figueiredo Bezerril, from removing the objects that were left behind. [6] Figueiredo then warned the president of Ipasgo, Lício Teixeira Borges, that he should take responsibility "for what would happen with the caesium bomb". [6]

The court posted a security guard to protect the hazardous abandoned equipment. [7] Meanwhile, the owners of IGR wrote several letters to the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN), warning them about the danger of keeping a teletherapy unit at an abandoned site, but they could not remove the equipment by themselves once a court order prevented them from doing so. [6] [7]

Theft of the source

On September 13, 1987, taking advantage of the absence of the guard, [7] Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira illegally entered the partially demolished facility. They partially disassembled the teletherapy unit, and placed the source assembly – which they thought might have some scrap value – in a wheelbarrow, taking it to Alves's home. [1] There, they began dismantling the equipment. That same evening, they both began to vomit. Nevertheless, they continued in their efforts. The following day, Pereira began to experience diarrhea and dizziness, and his left hand began to swell. He soon developed a burn on this hand in the same size and shape as the aperture – he eventually underwent partial amputation of several fingers. [8]

On September 15, Pereira visited a local clinic where his symptoms were diagnosed as the result of something he had eaten, and he was told to return home and rest. [1] Alves, however, continued with his efforts to dismantle the equipment. In the course of this effort, he eventually freed the caesium capsule from its protective rotating head. His prolonged exposure to the radioactive material led to his right forearm becoming ulcerated, requiring amputation. [9]

Opening the capsule

On September 16, Alves succeeded in puncturing the capsule's aperture window with a screwdriver, allowing him to see a deep blue light coming from the tiny opening he had created. [1] He inserted the screwdriver and successfully scooped out some of the glowing substance. Thinking it was perhaps a type of gunpowder, he tried to light it, but the powder would not ignite. The exact mechanism by which the light was generated was not known at the time the IAEA report was written, though it was thought to be either ionized air glow, fluorescence or Cherenkov radiation associated with the absorption of moisture by the source; similar blue light was observed in 1988 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the disencapsulation of a 137Cs source. [1]

Source is sold and dismantled

On September 18, Alves sold the items to a nearby scrapyard. That night, Devair Alves Ferreira (the owner of the scrapyard) noticed the blue glow from the punctured capsule. Thinking the capsule's contents were valuable or even supernatural, he immediately brought it into his house. Over the next three days, he invited friends and family to view the strange glowing substance.

On September 21, at the scrapyard, one of Ferreira's friends (given as EF1 in the IAEA report) succeeded in freeing several rice-sized grains of the glowing material from the capsule using a screwdriver. Ferreira began to share some of them with various friends and family members. That same day, his wife, 37-year-old Gabriela Maria Ferreira, began to fall ill. On September 25, 1987, Devair Ferreira sold the scrap metal to a second scrapyard.

Ivo and his daughter

The day before the sale to the second scrapyard, on September 24, Ivo, Devair's brother, successfully scraped some additional dust out of the source and took it to his house a short distance away. There he spread some of it on the concrete floor. His six-year-old daughter, Leide das Neves Ferreira, later ate a sandwich while sitting on this floor. She was also fascinated by the blue glow of the powder, applying it to her body and showing it off to her mother. Dust from the powder fell on the sandwich she was consuming; she eventually absorbed 1.0  GBq and received a total dose of 6.0  Gy, more than a fatal dose even with treatment. [10]

Gabriela Maria Ferreira notifies authorities

Gabriela Maria Ferreira had been the first to notice that many people around her had become severely ill at the same time. [11] On September 28, 1987 — fifteen days after the item was found — she reclaimed the materials from the rival scrapyard and transported them to a hospital. Because the remains of the source were kept in a plastic bag, the level of contamination at the hospital was low.

Source's radioactivity is detected

In the morning of September 29, a visiting medical physicist [12] used a scintillation counter to confirm the presence of radioactivity and persuaded the authorities to take immediate action. The city, state, and national governments were all aware of the incident by the end of the day.

Health outcomes

News of the radiation incident was broadcast on local, national, and international media. Within days, nearly 130,000 people swarmed local hospitals concerned that they might have been exposed. [2] Of those, 250 were indeed found to be contaminated — some with radioactive residue still on their skin — through the use of Geiger counters. [2] Eventually, twenty people showed signs of radiation sickness and required treatment. [2]


Ages in years are given, with dosages listed in grays (Gy).

Devair Ferreira himself survived despite receiving 7 Gy of radiation. He died in 1994 of cirrhosis aggravated by depression and binge drinking. [16] Ivo Ferreira died of emphysema in 2003, after also being afflicted by depression. [17]

Other individuals

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 because the dose was fractionated. [1] 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 mitigate the effects of radiation poisoning.

This is a barchart showing the outcome for the 46 most contaminated people for whom a dose estimate has been made. The people are divided into seven groups according to dose. Goiania accident - Health outcomes.svg
This is a barchart showing the outcome for the 46 most contaminated people for whom a dose estimate has been made. The people are divided into seven groups according to dose.

Other affected people

Afterwards, about 112,000 people were examined for radioactive contamination; 249 were found to have significant levels of radioactive material in or on their body. [1] Of this group, 129 people had internal contamination. The majority of the internally contaminated people only suffered small doses (< 50 mSv , less than a 1 in 400 risk of getting cancer as a result). A thousand people 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 1 in 2,000 and 1 in 100 risk of developing cancer as a result).

In 2007, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation determined that the rate of caesium-137 related diseases are the same in Goiânia accident survivors as they are in the population at large. Nevertheless, compensation is still distributed to survivors, who suffer radiation-related prejudices in everyday life. [18]

In light of the deaths caused, the three doctors who had owned and operated IGR were charged with criminal negligence. Because the accidents occurred before the promulgation of the Federal Constitution of 1988 and because the substance was acquired by the clinic and not by the individual owners, the court could not declare the owners of IGR liable. One of the medical doctors owning IGR and the clinic's physicist were ordered to pay R$100,000 for the derelict condition of the building. The two thieves were not included as defendants in the public civil suit.

In 2000, CNEN was ordered by the 8th Federal Court of Goiás to pay compensation of R$ 1.3 million (near US$750,000) and to guarantee medical and psychological treatment for the direct and indirect victims of the accident and their descendants down to the third generation. [19]


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 that were found to be free of radioactivity were wrapped in plastic bags, while those that were contaminated were either decontaminated or disposed of as waste. In industry, the choice between decontaminating or disposing objects is based on only the economic value of the object and the ease of decontamination. In this case, the IAEA recognized that to reduce the psychological impact of the event, greater effort should have been 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, and plumbing was 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 cleanup was moved out of the city to a remote place for storage.

Potassium alum dissolved in hydrochloric acid was used on clay, concrete, soil, and roofs. Caesium 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 people, although by the time it was applied, much of the radioactive material had already migrated from the bloodstream to the muscle tissue, greatly hampering its effectiveness. Urine from victims was treated with ion exchange resin to compact the waste for ease of storage.

Recovery considerations

The cleanup operation was much harder for this event than it could have been because the source was opened and the active material was water-soluble. A sealed source need only be picked up, placed in a lead container, 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 a pallet of bricks or a concrete block) near the source to protect recovery workers.

Contamination locations

The Goiânia accident spread significant radioactive contamination throughout the Aeroporto, Central, and Ferroviários districts. Even after the cleanup, 7 TBq of radioactivity remained unaccounted for.

Some of the key contamination sites:

Map all coordinates using: OpenStreetMap  
Download coordinates as: KML  ·  GPX

Other contamination was also found in or on: [21]

  • Three buses
  • 42 houses
  • fourteen cars
  • five pigs
  • 50,000 rolls of toilet paper


Disposal of the capsule

The original teletherapy capsule was seized by the Brazilian military as soon as it was discovered, and since then the empty capsule has been on display at the Escola de Instrução Especializada ("School of Specialized Instruction") in Rio de Janeiro as a memento to those who participated in the cleanup of the contaminated area.


In 1991, a group of researchers collected blood samples from highly exposed survivors of the incident. Subsequent analysis resulted in the publication of numerous scientific articles. [22] [23] [24] [25]

Media depictions

A 1990 film Césio 137 – O Pesadelo de Goiânia ("Caesium-137 – The Nightmare of Goiânia"), a dramatisation of the incident, was made by Roberto Pires. [26] It won several awards at the 1990 Festival de Brasília. [27]

"Thine Own Self", a 1994 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation , was partially inspired by the Goiânia accident. [28]


The state government of Goiás established the Fundação Leide das Neves Ferreira in February 1988, both to study the extent of contamination of the population as a result of the incident and to render aid to those affected. [29]

See also

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