Over thirty-five years ago, the future was set for hundreds of Brazilians — but not in a good way.
According to History.com, in September of 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), explains on its website that Cs-137 is produced by nuclear fission and is used in small amounts for cancer therapy and in industrial devices.
Unfortunately, exposure to large amounts of Cs-137 can increase the risk for cancer as well as cause acute radiation sickness or even death.
No one informed authorities about the neglected equipment, and two years later criminals removed the machine and sold it to the local junkyard, where it was dismantled. In the process, the Cesium-137 that was still inside was released, contaminating people and objects. The folks at the junkyard were quite fascinated by the now glowing blue stones in the area and gave them away to family and friends. Unbeknownst to the people involved, the fun colorful rocks were actually tainted with radiation and were extremely dangerous. The article explained:
“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.”
In addition, there was widespread fear among everyone who had heard about this event and the people in the area of Goiana were shunned.
Could that happen today? We previously wrote about high levels of radiation found at an Indonesia housing complex where Caesium-137 (Cs-137) was found at a housing complex, caused by illegal radioactive waste disposal. Just this past year we wrote about the importance of securing nuclear density gauges because many were being stolen from worksites to scrap, pawn, or to sell the nuclear source on the open market.
During demolition and deconstruction, many potentially radioactive items could be tossed in the trash and taken to a landfill, or sent to scrapyards. It takes just one orphan source to become a threat to the public’s health. The US Environmental Protection Agency has created Radiation Training Presentations for Scrap Metal Processing and Demolition Sites to train personnel in the identification and proper handling of radiation sources that could be encountered at scrap metal facilities or demolition sites.
There are automatic scrap monitoring systems that monitor vehicles entering scrap yards and landfill areas, and provide accurate, reliable detection of radiation sources commonly found. Demolition companies use portal monitoring equipment to segregate out scrap metals for recycling from material destined for the land fill. There has been a strong focus on screening scrap metal for orphaned sources because of the clean-up costs and potential human exposure if these sources are breached during the material handling process at the scrap yard, or melted during the metal making process.
Many authorities are equipped with radiation detection and measurement, devices that can help search for materials, monitor a suspected area, identify surface contamination, and ascertain the exact isotope of the radioactive material in order to assess the potential threat and quickly initiate a plan of action. Anyone involved in the investigation and near the contaminated area can also utilize personal radiation detectors and personal dose meters to continuously monitor for any radiation exposure.
Let’s hope that the new policies that have been put in place following the Brazilian tragedy help ensure that medical facilities and other industries across the world that utilize sources dispose of them properly so no shunning is needed and no more lives are lost.