It is now known that at about the end of 1985 a private radiotherapy institute, the Institute Goiano de Radioterapia in Goiania, Brazil, moved to new premises, taking with it a cobalt-60 teletherapy unit and leaving in place a caesium-137 teletherapy unit without notifying the licensing authority as required under the terms of the institute’s licence. The former premises were subsequently partly demolished. As a result, the caesium-137 teletherapy unit became totally insecure. Two people entered the premises and, not knowing what the unit was but thinking it might have some scrap value, removed the source assembly from the radiation head of the machine. This they took home and tried to dismantle. In the attempt the source capsule was ruptured. The radioactive source was in the form of caesium chloride salt, which is highly soluble and readily dispersible. Contamination of the environment ensued, with one result being the external irradiation and internal contamination of several persons. Thus began one of the most serious radiological accidents ever to have occurred. After the source capsule was ruptured, the remnants of the source assembly were sold for scrap to a junkyard owner. He noticed that the source material glowed blue in the dark. Several persons were fascinated by this and over a period of days friends and relatives came and saw the phenomenon. Fragments of the source the size of rice grains were distributed to several families. This proceeded for five days, by which time a number of people were showing gastrointestinal symptoms arising from their exposure to radiation from the source. The symptoms were not initially recognized as being due to irradiation. However, one of the persons irradiated connected the illnesses with the source capsule and took the remnants to the public health department in the city. This action began a chain of events which led to the discovery of the accident. A local physicist was the first to assess, by monitoring, the scale of the accident and took actions on his own initiative to evacuate two areas. At the same time the authorities were informed, upon which the speed and the scale of the response were impressive. Several other sites of significant contamination were quickly identified and residents evacuated.
[Read the full IAEA report here]