Episodes in Brazilian History #2 – Sparkly Blue Powder

In 1987, a tragic event took place in Goiânia, the capital of Goiás state, in central Brazil. It began when the Prefeitura (city council) abandoned a clinic, leaving medical equipment decaying amongst the ruined buildings. One of the larger pieces of equipment was an old X-Ray machine. Two enterprising scrap metal scavengers broke into the clinic, found the machine and lugged it to a local scrap yard. Back at the yard, they proceeded to dismantle it, revealing a mysterious internal canister. The workers finally forced their way into the canister and were rewarded with an eerie glowing blue powder.

The strange powder was taken home by the worker, and, because of it’s magical appearance, given to his daughter to play with. She sprinkled it on her clothes, skin, bed and even food. News of the powder spread and curious neighbours arrived to marvel at its mesmerising sparkle, often leaving with a sample of the charm themselves. Unfortunately the powder was not magical glitter, but in fact caesium chloride, a component in the X-Ray machine that contained the radioactive isotope caesium-137.

The consequences were horrific, with 4 direct deaths due to radiation poisoning, and 54 secondary fatalities. The decontamination process required a team of 550 people searching 100’s of homes and public spaces for residual radiation, with huge amounts of radioactive waste being generated. The Brazilian nuclear association were seen as liable, as they had failed to properly decommission the radioactive equipment. There was a huge outcry in the media and the incident it often used as an example of the need to tightly control all radioactive material.