News of a fresh leak at Japan’s Fukushina nuclear plant hit the airwaves after a stream of radioactive waste hit the Pacific Ocean. Most nuclear accidents, including this one, arrive with scenes of earthquakes, explosions, and fire. These incidents make for good cable news stories, but not all nuclear disasters are as photoworthy. Let’s remember a smaller, but no less ominous, tale of radiation exposure.
On September 13, 1987, an old radiotherapy machine was taken from an abandoned hospital in Goiania, Brazil. A junkyard dealer, foraging for scrap metal, opened the lead-covered machine. Inside, he discovered a tiny cake of cesium chloride. The cake was extremely radioactive, but its bright blue color appealed to a group of young children, who called it “carnival glitter.” The kids rubbed the powder all over their bodies before returning to their respective homes.
Twelve days later, a 6-year-old girl named Leidi Ferreira ate an egg sandwich for lunch and began vomiting. The next day, the rest of Leidi’s family grew ill. The city’s public health clinic sent the family home despite their more serious symptoms of aches and burns. Soon afterward, their hair fell out and lesions mounted upon their skin.
The Ferreira family met with strange looks from neighbors, who believed the family had developed AIDS. Leidi’s mother eventually gathered up a bag of the insidious blue powder. She argued that the substance was the source of her family’s illness, but doctors refused to believe her story. They accused her of being superstitious, but admitted her to the hospital for tropical disease treatment. When a clinic doctor finally called for testing of the blue substance, alarms were instantly raised, and the city’s citizens filed into Olympic stadium for testing.
Indeed, the powder was highly radioactive. Lena, whose pajamas were covered in the blue powder, sparkled and glowed. She adored the crystals, and neighbors were so fascinated with the substance that they scooped up a bit to take home. The powder was supernatural, they said. The real trouble didn’t begin until Leide ate the egg sandwich, which was covered in crystals from her hands. Beta particles from cesium chloride can cause skin irritation, but the damage won’t spread internally unless the particles are consumed. Even more harmful are the substance’s gamma rays, which deeply penetrate organs and cause irreversible damage. Leidi had also inhaled fine crystals, which shut down her lungs after hospitalization. Other citizens began to suffer similar symptoms, and some even endured lost skin and fingers.
When all was said and done, 112,000 people were examined for contamination. Over 240 of them suffered radiation exposure from this accident. Four people died, including young Leidi, who was buried in a lead coffin. Several blocks of homes were decontaminated. By the way, the junkyard dealer received around $25 dollars for the radiotherapy machine’s scrap metal. He had taken a large chunk of the powder and placed it in his front pants pocket for safekeeping. His intentions? To use the rock as stone for a ring, which would have made quite the romantic gift for his wife. Instead, the powder burned straight through his pants and onto his thigh.