On 13 September 1987, a radioactive contamination accident occurred in Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil. It’s one of the most serious radiological accidents and contamination persisted in some areas for years after the accident.
A private radiotherapy institute transferred premises and left in place a caesium-137 teletherapy unit without informing the licensing authority. When two people entered the place and saw the unit, they removed the source capsule which contained about 50 grams of caesium-137. They thought it might have some scrap value and took the unit home to sell in a junkyard.
In the attempt to dismantle it, the source capsule ruptured and from the junkyard, fragments of the radioactive source spread among many people who were clueless about the radioactivity. Some people even used the glowing substance to adorn jewellery and toys. The widespread contamination went unnoticed until several days later when one person fell ill and sought medical attention. Doctors quickly realised that he was suffering from radiation sickness and that the source of the contamination was Cesium-137.
The accident highlighted the importance of proper handling and disposal of radioactive materials and led to increased regulation and oversight of such materials in Brazil.
Types of Contamination
What happened to the people in the Goiânia incident were both internal and external contamination.
Internal contamination is the presence of radioactive materials within the body. This can occur through ingestion, inhalation, or absorption of radioactive substances, which can then accumulate in organs and tissues, and emit radiation. Depending on the type and amount of radioactive material involved, the severity of the contamination can vary.
On the other hand, external contamination refers to the presence of radioactive materials on the surface of objects or on a person’s skin, hair, or clothing. This can occur through direct contact with radioactive materials or through exposure to radioactive particles or dust.
External contamination can also be dangerous if the radioactive material enters the body and if it stays on the skin for longer periods of time. It can also lead to the spread of radioactive materials to other objects and surfaces.
Preventing Radiation Contamination
Preventing radiation contamination starts with following the ALARA principle: as low as reasonably achievable. Reduce time, increase distance and use shielding.
Handling and transporting radioactive sources carefully is critical. People involved should receive proper training from classifying, packing, marking and labelling, to segregating radioactive materials. There should also be workplace monitoring and if radiation exceeds a set limit, individual monitoring is also conducted.
Even in waste management facilities, operators must ensure that the radioactivity is kept at safe levels as they are required to report to regulatory bodies periodically to meet licence requirements.In case of a radiation incident, people should stay away as far as possible from the source, report it to authorities and contact a doctor if exposed. In Australia, radiation incidents are reported to the Australian Radiation Incident Register (ARIR), managed by ARPANSA.
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