The Goiânia Incident


By Alex Hassun from the Editorial Team

The Goiânia Incident was a tragedy that took the lives of four people as well as putting many others at risk. Some sources might refer to the events that happened as an accident, but calling it an accident implies a more coincidental failure. This incident was caused by the negligence of multiple organizations involved. To put a very long drawn out series of events as succinctly as possible, a radiotherapy unit containing cesium-137 was left in an abandoned clinic. The original owners of the building and the unit were prevented from retrieving the unit two years after moving from the premise by the police force and a court order was issued, preventing them from entering the building. The court posted a security guard to watch over it but then did nothing for four months. The source inside the unit which contained the radioactive cesium compound was then stolen by two scavengers looking for scrap. The source then passed hands a few more times after the thieves partially dismantled and sold it, coming in contact with many and irradiating all those who came in its general vicinity.

Pre-Incident failures

The Insituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR) were the owners of the abandoned radiotherapy unit. They left the obsolete (cobalt-70 had become the standard for such units at the time) without notifying the government or Brazil’s regulatory body for nuclear energy, the Comissão Nacional de Energia Nuclear (CNEN). This shows a gross irresponsibility on the part of those in charge of IGR. They should have contacted CNEN before moving to find a way to properly get rid of the unit. They were surely aware of the danger it posed, so to just leave it unattended in a building that had even been partially demolished after their departure is an absolutely appalling decision.

One of the owners of IGR later went to recover the device two years after leaving it, perhaps realizing the danger inherent to their decision to leave such a potentially dangerous piece of equipment in what would be an abandoned building. But the director of the Institute of Insurance for Civil Servants (Ipasgo) sent a police force to prevent the IGR owner from entering and the court prohibited any of them from attempting to do so again. The only measure the court took to deal with the unit was to post a single security guard and left it as such for the four months leading up to the theft. To the credit of IGR, they attempted to write letters to CNEN to warn them of the presence of the radioactive material, but the city government took no such initiative nor did it do anything else to dispose of or contain the device as they should have. There are many different ways the city government could have handled the radiotherapy unit at the time. The soundest option would be to immediately contact CNEN and have them help deal with the device, but it also could have been taken to a more secure location. They could have at least put up a sign.

Possibly the perpetrator of the largest blunders leading up to the incident was CNEN itself. Though not involved in the onset of the incident directly, as the National Nuclear Energy Commission they are responsible for the regulation of radioactive material and the public safety surrounding such materials. In the first place the radiotherapy unit at the center of the incident should have been known to them before it even entered the country. While this equipment can have definite benefits, it is also extremely dangerous in the wrong hands, and CNEN should have held IGR accountable for it when they moved in 1985. Fast-forward to 1987 and IGR are trying to contact them about the device and they still do nothing in four months. As the ones responsible for protecting the citizenry from the misuse of nuclear energy sources this level of inaction preceding the incident has proven fatal .

Post-Incident failures

The aftermath of the event shows that the Brazilian government was not fully able to deal with a large-scale radiological incident like Goiânia, despite a large push for nuclear power and the construction of multiple nuclear reactors in the decades preceding it. During the cleanup operations and the treating of patients, various safety precautions were ignored. Nurses received contaminated patients as normal, ambulances remained contaminated for days, and the technicians who ran tests on the contamination levels did not wear specialized protective equipment and at least one of them got contaminated them self.

After news of the event spread, the populace was in a panic. People from the city were lining up in droves to get detected for radiation while others evacuated entirely. Citizens of the city were discriminated against by the rest of Brazil, prohibiting travels and staying in hotels or riding buses for fear that they might be contaminated. The entire state of Goias itself was suffering as people from other states refused to buy products that originated there. This panic could have been averted had the government and CNEN taken the proper care providing information. What information was provided to citizens about the specifics of the incident was incomplete or unclear. In addition, many were not aware of how radiation functions and much of the terminology related to that, which meant people had various misconceptions leading to irrational behavior. The media was not provided clear answers as well. For example, one spokesman said the radiation would never be gone. This is technically correct due to the nature of radioactive decay but incomplete, and it lead ahead saying the affected area would be uninhabitable for 100 years.

This kind of miscommunication only aggravated the unrest. Information should have been provided as soon as possible and it should have been correct, complete, and clear in order to educate the public on the incident and the workings of radiation. It is the failure of the authorities to do this that lead to a larger social impact of the incident than would otherwise be the case.

The Goiânia Incident was a tragedy that could have likely been avoided. Had the licensing for medical radiation equipment been stricter and had those devices been better accounted for, the radiotherapy unit would have never been left in the first place. The panic and impact in the time immediately after the incident could have been lessened as well had there been clearer communication and education on the basics of radiation. Hopefully the events that transpired allowed Brazil to be better able to deal with radiological incidents in the future, and more importantly, how to prevent them entirely.

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