Date: 12-29 September 1987
Location: Goiania, Goias, Brazil
Type of event: accidental dispersal of lost radiography source
A radiotherapy unit had been abandoned in a clinic which was being demolished. The unit had a source consisted of 1,375 curies of cesium-137 in the form of cesium chloride salt, sealed within two nested stainless steel containers to form a 5-cm diameter capsule. Two individuals, R.A. and W.P., dismantled the unit and extracted the source, taking it to the home of R.A. Both began vomiting on 13 September; W.P. sought medical treatment on 15 September and was advised to stay home. R.A. opened the source outside his home on 18 September. The unit material was sold to a junkyard owned by D.F., who noticed a blue glow from the source container that night; he and his wife M.F. examined the material closely, also inviting a number of people to view the capsule. On 21 September the source material was removed and distributed among several people, some of whom spread it on their skin. Also that day M.F. became ill and was cared for by her mother M.A., who took contamination to her home on leaving on 23 September. Around 23 September junkyard employees I.S. and A.S. were exposed while further dismantling parts of the unit. D.F.'s brother I.F. took some source material home on 24 September and set it on a table during a meal; several family members, including his 6-year-old daughter L.F., handled the material while eating. On 25 September D.F. sold some unit components to a second junkyard.
With many people ill by 28 September, M.F., assisted by G.S., took the material along with some components recovered from the second junkyard and transported it on a bus to a hospital where she placed it on the desk of Dr. P.M. and stated it was "killing her family." Doctors initially suspected a tropical disease, but one suspected radiation injury. The morning of 29 September a medical physicist, W. F., was contacted; his arrival was delayed because he doubted the readings of his first radiation monitor, but arrived in time to prevent the fire department from throwing the source into a river. The afternoon of 29 September the authorities were alerted and began response, including identification of contaminated areas and treatment of injured people in facilities set up in the city's Olympic stadium. About 112,800 people were examined at the stadium of whom 129 were found to be contaminated; 20 were hospitalized.
By 3 October some injured people had been sent to Rio de Janeiro for treatment, while others were treated in a special wing of the Goiania General Hospital. Four people died in the acute phase: M.F. and L. F. died 23 October, with respective doses of 570 and 600 rad, respectively; I.S. died 27 October (dose 450 rad); A.S. died 28 October (dose 530 rad). A fifth person, D. F. (dose 700 rad) was hospitalized in May 1994 and subsequently died of liver failure related to his radiation injury. Others exposed included M.A. (430 rad), G.S. (300 rad), and Dr. P.M. (130 rad). W.P. suffered radiation injury to his hand, and R.A. and W.P. both suffered radiation sickness. In addition to the five who died, 23 suffered localized radiation burns, several requiring amputation of fingers. The 23 injured survivors included 9 showing bone marrow depression of whom 3 displayed acute radiation sickness. During hospitalization many patients suffered depression and other emotional problems.
Consequences: 5 fatalities, 20 injuries.
© 2004, 2005 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 11 May 2005.
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