On this day in 1987, cesium-137 is removed from an abandoned cancer-therapy machine in Brazil. Hundreds of people were eventually poisoned by radiation from the substance, highlighting the danger that even relatively small amounts of radiation can pose.
In 1985, the Goiania Institute of Radiotherapy moved to a new location and left behind an obsolete Cesium-137 teletherapy unit in their abandoned headquarters. The institute failed to inform the authorities of the existence of the outdated device and the machine sat in the building in downtown Goiania, 600 miles from Sao Paulo, for over a year before two criminally enterprising men removed the machine.
The men sold it to a local junkyard on September 13. Five days later, workers at the junkyard dismantled the machine, releasing the Cesium-137 that was still inside. Fascinated by the glowing blue stone and completely unaware of its dangers, they distributed pieces to friends, relatives and neighbors. The cesium was spread around so much that contamination was later found 100 miles away.
Days later, the junkyard owner’s wife began noticing that her friends and relatives were getting sick. When she sought medical assistance, doctors found that they were suffering from acute radiation poisoning. Four people eventually died from exposure, including one child. Scores were hospitalized and more than 100,000 people in the city had to be monitored for contamination.
More than 40 homes in the city were found to have high levels of contamination and had to be demolished. The after-effects were also serious. Many of the citizens suffered psychologically from their fear of contamination. In fact, fear was so widespread that other cities shunned the people and products of Goiania following the incident.
Following this disaster, Brazil completely overhauled their laws regarding the storage of radiation sources.