Radioactive Powder Injures Hundreds of Brazilians

Brazil’s nuclear program was called into question when more than two hundred people were exposed to radiation after a container retrieved by scavengers from a defunct cancer clinic was opened, revealing radioactive powder.

Summary of Event

On September 13, 1987, Roberto Santos Alves and Wagner Pereira Mota found a radiotherapy machine in an abandoned cancer clinic in Goiania, a rapidly growing city of approximately one million inhabitants on Brazil’s central plateau, 130 miles southwest of the capital, Brasília. The two unemployed men earned a meager living by scavenging for paper and metal objects that they then sold to junk dealers. After taking the machine apart, the men discovered a stainless-steel cylinder that they believed had resale value. They sold the cylinder to Devair Ferreira, a scrap dealer, for the equivalent of thirty U.S. dollars, about one-half the monthly minimum wage in Brazil. Disasters;radiation
Cesium 137[Cesium one thirty seven]
Radiation poisoning
[kw]Radioactive Powder Injures Hundreds of Brazilians (Sept. 21-Oct. 1, 1987)
[kw]Brazilians, Radioactive Powder Injures Hundreds of (Sept. 21-Oct. 1, 1987)
Cesium 137[Cesium one thirty seven]
Radiation poisoning
[g]South America;Sept. 21-Oct. 1, 1987: Radioactive Powder Injures Hundreds of Brazilians[06560]
[g]Brazil;Sept. 21-Oct. 1, 1987: Radioactive Powder Injures Hundreds of Brazilians[06560]
[c]Disasters;Sept. 21-Oct. 1, 1987: Radioactive Powder Injures Hundreds of Brazilians[06560]
[c]Environmental issues;Sept. 21-Oct. 1, 1987: Radioactive Powder Injures Hundreds of Brazilians[06560]
Alves, Roberto Santos
Pereira Mota, Wagner
Ferreira, Devair

The scavengers’ good fortune, however, marked the beginning of an appalling disaster that affected not only Ferreira, his friends, and his family but also hundreds of other residents of Goiania. Inside the stainless-steel cylinder was a platinum capsule that, when pried open, revealed a phosphorescent blue powder. When Ferreira took the powder home on September 21, his wife was so impressed with its glowing crystals that she and her husband kept some of the powder on display in their house. They also gave some to favored family members and neighbors. Children seemed particularly drawn to the colorful, glowing dust. Ferreira’s six-year-old niece, Leide das Neves Ferreira, decorated her body with it, as though it were carnival glitter. She was playing with cesium 137, a highly radioactive substance used in the treatment of cancer patients. Unwittingly, the scrap dealer and his family had become participants in a nuclear disaster with deadly consequences.

In a matter of days, those who had handled the cesium fell ill: Their skin became swollen and blistered, their hair began to fall out, their teeth loosened, and they suffered acute abdominal pain from internal bleeding. On September 28, realizing that there was probably a connection between the powder and the illness, Ferreira boarded a city bus with some of the powder to seek help at a public health clinic. After he was quickly and accurately diagnosed as suffering from radiation illness, the clinic staff notified the authorities. The following day, a team of doctors from the Brazilian Nuclear Energy Commission arrived in Goiania to assess the extent of the problem. On October 1, having found that at least two hundred people had been contaminated by the cesium 137, the Brazilian government sought aid from the International Atomic Energy Agency International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which immediately assembled and dispatched to Brazil a team of doctors who specialized in treating victims of radioactive contamination.

The ten patients found to be the most severely infected were taken to a naval hospital in Rio de Janeiro, one of only two facilities in the country equipped to treat radiation cases. Once there, the patients were placed under the care of Dr. Robert Gale, Gale, Robert a North American bone marrow specialist who had treated victims of the Chernobyl nuclear core meltdown in 1986. Gale apparently had been informally contacted and invited to Brazil; once there, he seized the opportunity to use some experimental drugs on the six patients who represented the very worst cases of contamination. Four of them died, but two seemed to rally with the treatment. By the end of the year, although there were no further fatalities, twenty-eight people remained hospitalized with radiation illness. It would be years before the full toll of the tragedy, especially the development of cancers induced by exposure to the radioactive material, became evident.

When the nuclear accident made headlines, Brazilians began to panic. Because so much time had elapsed between the opening of the capsule containing the cesium 137 and the realization that the powder was dangerous, many in Goiania had unknowingly been exposed to radiation. Some who had prolonged contact with the material had begun to emit radiation themselves, contaminating others by their very presence. Bits of the powder had been flushed down a toilet, contaminating the sewage system. The bus taken by the scrap dealer in his search for help was also found to be radioactive. The danger posed by the cesium 137 extended well beyond Devair Ferreira’s neighborhood.

When citizens of Goiania realized their predicament, they flocked to testing centers to find out if they had been contaminated. By December, 1987, more than 100,000 people had been tested for radiation. The fear of contamination quickly spread to the national level. Travelers from Goiania found their hotel reservations canceled in other parts of Brazil as the entire city became suspected of spreading potentially deadly radiation. Two airline pilots lost their jobs after they refused to pick up passengers in Goiania. Brazilians all over the country refused to buy produce from Goiania-area farms, and outsiders were afraid to travel to Goiania. The “power” of the glowing dust brought ruinous consequences to the region.


The tragedy in Goiania showed that Brazil was ill prepared to deal with a nuclear disaster and immediately raised questions about the future of the nation’s nuclear program. Shortly before the Goiania disaster, the Brazilian government had announced its ability to enrich uranium, a capability that placed the country in the ranks of nations that could support an atomic program. Evidence that the state had not adequately supervised the radioactive waste of cancer clinics cast serious doubts on Brazil’s ability to run a safe nuclear program. If the state did not have the ability to monitor health clinics, how could it adequately support nuclear power stations?

In the 1970’s, Brazilians had become interested in producing nuclear energy. Despite the fact that their country was exceptionally well served by rivers and had enormous potential for generating hydroelectric power, Brazil’s leaders apparently believed that in order to join the select group of developed nations, Brazil must have its own nuclear power stations. Nuclear energy;power plants Because the United States at the time hesitated to share nuclear technology with developing nations that might then complicate international relations by building atomic bombs, Brazil negotiated an agreement with West Germany for the sale of technology necessary to build a nuclear complex. The site chosen was in Angra dos Reis, a town situated roughly halfway between the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

Despite pressure from the United States, Brazil’s plans for three power stations had begun to materialize when Angra I was inaugurated in 1985. This great hope for advancement in Brazil’s nuclear technology, however, was disappointing from the start: Angra I, constantly plagued with problems, had to be shut down frequently. The nuclear complex was built in Brazil’s most heavily industrialized and also most densely populated region. Furthermore, most of the available financial resources had been channeled into building the reactors, and no adequate evacuation plan had been designed for the area around Angra dos Reis. The technical troubles with the first reactor were not a good sign for the future of the program and caused a significant measure of unease in southern Brazil.

Brazilians’ fear of nuclear disaster grew dramatically with the nuclear core meltdown at Chernobyl Chernobyl nuclear accident (1986) in the Soviet Union in 1986. Although some Brazilians realized that the events at Chernobyl could easily be replicated at Angra, most simply became far more conscious of the dangers of radiation as a result of media coverage of the disaster. As the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl spread over Europe, contaminating agropastoral products in that part of the world, Brazilians were informed that their government was using the nuclear disaster to help ease inflationary troubles at home. In an effort to keep the prices of food staples down, Brazil had imported, at very low prices, powdered milk that might have been contaminated by radiation. When they realized why certain brands of powdered milk were so much cheaper than others, Brazilians of all social classes spurned the less expensive products, preferring the preservation of their long-term health over saving on their grocery bills. When, one year later, radioactive disaster struck closer to home, many people panicked.

In the wake of the Goiania tragedy, it became obvious that the Brazilian Nuclear Energy Commission Nuclear Energy Commission, Brazil was not ready to deal with the task before it. It had allowed equipment containing highly radioactive material to remain abandoned for more than two years at the site of the deserted health clinic. The commission, which was responsible for overseeing and controlling nuclear products throughout the country, was in large part culpable for the tragedy because it had not fulfilled its obligation to ensure the proper disposal of nuclear waste.

Furthermore, the commission’s response to the accident failed to inspire confidence in its technicians. Those sent to examine the contamination in the vicinity of the junkyard wore no protective clothing, and at least one technician was himself contaminated. The ambulances that carried victims from the airport in Rio de Janeiro to the naval hospital were not decontaminated for several days, and thus other health care workers were exposed to nuclear contamination. Further, the authorities did not alert hospital nurses to the fact that they should wear protective clothing when they came in contact with victims.

José Goldemberg, Goldemberg, José a nuclear physicist and rector of the University of São Paulo, voiced strong criticism of Brazil’s Nuclear Energy Commission in the aftermath of the disaster. The commission’s management of the development of nuclear projects and of their monitoring was characterized as biased or sloppy. The response to the tragedy at Goiania brought about a federal investigation of the commission and a change in its leadership.

Long after the accident, radiophobia—that is, fear of radioactivity—continued to grip Brazil. Because the cesium 137 powder had soaked into the soil, tons of dirt had become contaminated and had to be removed. After sealing the radioactive waste in lead-lined drums, the Nuclear Energy Commission sought locations for storing them. At first, the drums were to be buried deep in Amazonia, but protests from Indian groups and from environmentalists brought a change in plans; the drums were disposed of on the outskirts of Goiania. The four people who died from radiation illness were buried in a Goiania cemetery, in lead-lined coffins, despite protests from local residents who feared that radioactivity from the coffins would leak into the water supply, spreading contamination.

Months after the deadly powder had decorated the home of Devair Ferreira, residents of Goiania continued to undergo radioactive testing. Many worried that they might inadvertently come into contact with contaminated individuals. People with physical problems unrelated to radiation were viewed with suspicion; for example, one man who had several skin cancers on his hand was denied work because the potential employer believed the welts could be signs of radiation sickness. This man was one of thousands who, after being tested with a Geiger counter, requested an official certificate guaranteeing that he had not been contaminated by radioactive waste. Although the certificates solved an immediate problem, the fear remained that deadly agents continued to lurk within many of the inhabitants of Goiania, and that only in years to come (and possibly only in future generations) would the full extent of the damage be known. Disasters;radiation
Cesium 137[Cesium one thirty seven]
Radiation poisoning

Further Reading

  • Caufield, Catherine. Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Discusses the development of radiation since the discovery of the X ray in 1895 and highlights the growing exposure of individuals to multiple sources of radiation. Includes illustrations, glossary, select bibliography, and index.
  • Dwyer, Augusta. “Playing with Radiation.” Maclean’s, November 2, 1987, 44. Presents a brief account of the tragedy that unfolded in Brazil because of innocent fascination with a glowing blue powder.
  • Lopez, Laura, and Edwin M. Reingold. “A Battle Against Deadly Dust.” Time, November 16, 1987, 66. Discusses the role Robert Gale played in the effort to treat victims of contamination transported from Goiania to the naval hospital in Rio de Janeiro.
  • Roberts, Leslie. “Radiation Accident Grips Goiania.” Science 238 (November 20, 1987): 1028-1031. Describes the accident in Goiania, then focuses on the controversy surrounding Gale’s use of experimental drugs to treat six of the victims.
  • Sagan, Leonard A., ed. Human and Ecologic Effects of Nuclear Power. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1974. Provides useful background information on the broader effects of radiation and nuclear power.
  • Yard, Charles Richard. “Lost Radiation Sources: Raising Public Awareness About the Hazards Associated with Industrial and Medical Radiography Sources.” Journal of Environmental Health 58, no. 10 (1996). Discusses the dangers posed by sources of radiation other than those, such as nuclear power plants, that are commonly feared. Focuses particularly on industrial and medical sources of radiation and includes brief mention of the tragedy in Brazil.

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