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The Brazilian Horror

“Never have I seen such a tragedy”, affirmed the physicist Jose Rosenthal of CNEN (the Brazilian Nuclear Energy Commission), referring to the spread of radioactive cesium- 137 in the central Brazilian town of Goiama. The accident involves approximately 100 gms. of Cs 137, ‘an amount similar to the total Cs fallout on the whole of West Germany following the Chernobyl disaster) and has already claimed 4 lives with 40 more hospitalized of whom many are not expected to survive.

In Brazil workers are legally required to provide their employers with X-ray photographs of their lungs. This has led to the proliferation of private radiological clinics set up by people with lot of money and no scruples. The cesium in powdered form was contained in a lead box found by some men in an abandoned radiology clinic. They sold the lead cask to a scrap metal dealer who opened it. Reports say that people present were fascinated by the luminosity of cesium
and started, playin with it. Maria Gabriella, the 6 year old daughter of the scrap metal dealer rubbed the powder all over her body and paid for her innocent, exuberance with her life.

The powder has contaminated a whole neighbourhood.  People   took   the glittering powder home to show it to their family and friends. When the horrible symptoms started appearing they tried to wash it all off thus contaminating the water drains. Then panic gripped the city. Its one million citizens became national pariahs. 30,000 people visited control posts in a ten day period,
Business in the city fell by over 60%. Not many people wanted to buy food or clothing for the fear of contamination. Many abandoned their homes. People had to produce certificates from the CNEN testifying their radioactive ‘cleanliness’.

The tragedy has highlighted the total confusion and un preparedness of the authorities.
When news of the accident became known, 42 technicians from CNEN travelled to Goiania,
where many of them worked without proper protective clothing. The machines brought for measuring radioactivity quickly broke down, the measurements were inaccurate and one technician as well as four policemen were contaminated. The patients were transfered in ordinary ambulances which were used without decontamination for days. The hospitals did not have enough disposable clothing nor isolated rooms for the victims. At least two nurses and one doctor were also contaminated.

The problem of what to do with the radioactive waste has not yet been solved. The football stadium where the victims were first brought for checks needs to be decontaminated
There were suggestions that it be washed and the grass burnt. Unfortunately radioacctivity cannot be got rid of so easily : The water will run into the sewer system and fire will make the radioactive particles airbourne spreading contamination far and wide. Cesium has a half life of thirty years and thus contaminated material can remain a threat for hundreds of years. It is for this reason that the residents of the city do not want burial of the accident victims in the city cemetry though they have been placed in coffins with layers of lead and concrete each  weighing 600 kg.

Source : WISE   news   communique 281.2428;   282.2843
The Telegraph : 4.11.’87

 Anumukti Vol. 1. Issue 3