GOIANIA, BRAZIL — By day, this fast-growing city of 1.7 million, with its skyscrapers rising like a mirage out of the fertile emerald-green plains of central Brazil, teems with traffic and commerce.

But the night belongs to the trash pickers.

They trudge along the streets of the agricultural centre that oversees distribution of rice, meat and milk to the rest of the country, dragging huge wooden carts behind them.

Alves had no way of knowing the machine housed a tiny capsule of highly radioactive cesium 137. He looked at the machine and saw scrap iron. Such a man was Roberto Santos Alves, 24, who, last month, happened upon a discarded irradiation machine in a weed-strewn lot on a busy street corner not far from the airport.

Santos Alves had no way of knowing that the machine, which seemed to belong to no one, housed a tiny capsule of the highly radioactive isotope cesium 137. He looked at the machine and saw scrap iron.

So he got some friends to help him haul it into his back yard, where they placed it on an old brown rug and smashed it with hammers, unwittingly provoking one of the worst-known accidents involving radioactive waste.

In the wake of the accident, 20 people remain hospitalized, six in critical condition. An additional 15 are under observation by an outpatient clinic. About 125 residents have been forced to leave homes near contaminated sites where Santos Alves and his friends, in their ignorance, carried the cesium.

The government has offered assurances that the scope of the disaster in no way approximates last year's accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. "That was a nuclear accident, and this is a radioactive accident," President Jose Sarney said last week. But many people are worried.

Innocent victims
The accident has provoked a national debate over what to do with atomic waste and has set off protest demonstrations across the country. And it has left behind a string of innocent victims who were taken by the almost magical brilliance of a substance that was so deadly.

On Oct. 14, doctors amputated Santos Alves's right forearm. It had been badly ulcerated by radiation burns. He is not expected to live. Nor are at least five others, including 6-year-old Leide Alves Ferreira. All the victims touched the cesium, fascinated by its blue glow. Some, like Leide, ingested it as well.

"They had no idea what it was," said Manoel Ramos, 26, a technician for Brazil's Nuclear Energy Commission, which is in charge of cleaning up 11 sites known to be contaminated by radiation.

"People saw the light of the cesium and thought it was a precious gem," Ramos said.

One guy saw
that it glowed and made a Z
on his chest.
Now he has a burn in that shape.

"Some of them smeared it on their bodies. One guy saw that it glowed in the dark and made a Z on his chest. Now he has a burn in that shape."

Ramos stood in front of a plain little house on 17A St. that had been cordoned off with a hemp rope, from which fluttered several small signs that warned: "Danger Radioactive Area."

Warning signs
Next door, a few yards from the rope, a half-dozen ragged children played in the mud in front of their ramshackle one-room house. Two of the children washed dishes in a basin outside the front door, while another cooked supper on a crude outdoor stove fashioned from a metal drum.

Ramos said the children were in no danger. "The level of contamination from the property is very low," he said. "This is not like Chernobyl, where gases escaped into the air."

The front yard of the contaminated house had been excavated, and an orange plastic cover placed over the hole where the septic tank used to be.

"We had to dig it up," Ramos explained, "because the woman of the house threw a piece of cesium down the toilet."

The cesium was a present to Dalva Selizardo Fabiano from her husband, Ernesto, a friend of Santos Alves. Selizardo Fabiano put a tiny piece of it in the right front pocket of his pants, thinking to make a ring for his wife. Later, when he and his friends started getting sick, with vomiting and diarrhea, body aches and strange burns, his wife suspected the substance was to blame and flushed it away.

She has two small black burns on her fingers and is homeless, but not hospitalized. Her husband is in the naval hospital in Rio de Janeiro, where the 10 most gravely stricken victims, including Santos Alves and the 6-year-old child, are being treated. According to Ramos, it was a particle of cesium 137 "the size of a piece of rice" that burned through Ernesto's pants, causing serious radiation burns on his right thigh.

The machine that Santos Alves found was left there by the privately owned Goiania Institute for Radiology, which closed last year, leaving a crumbling brick building that is now vandalized and littered with debris.

The cesium it contained was a granular substance. It is used, under highly controlled conditions, to give radiation treatment to cancer patients. But Santos Alves knew none of this.

When he and his friends trundled the heavy piece of machinery into his back yard, they planned to break it up and sell it to scrap-metal dealer Devair Alves Ferreira a few blocks away. And when their hammers cracked open the lead casing in the box and revealed a capsule in which they found about 100 grams of the strange substance, they decided to share their good fortune with Alves Ferreira, 33.

By now, Santos Alves's house on 57th St., a narrow street lined with stucco houses, some with carefully tended rose gardens, was contaminated. Soon Alves Ferreira's shack, in a scrap yard across the street from a high-rise apartment building, would be contaminated as well.

"She ate the poison, and her insides became contaminated," Joao da Silva said. In time Alves Ferreira gave some of the cesium to his brother, Ivo Alves Ferreira, who took it to his humble house on Sixth St. in a poor section of town. Ivo Alves Ferreira's wife, Maria Gabriella, admired it, and so did their little girl Leide, a pretty and curious child, who was playing with the substance when her mother called her to dinner.

"She had some scrambled eggs and a piece of bread," said Joao da Silva, a tall old man in a straw hat who stood in the red clay of his wood scrap yard a few yards away from Leide's roped-off house. "She ate the poison, and her insides became contaminated," da Silva said.

Leide suffers from lesions on her mouth and throat, and ulcers on her tongue that make eating impossible. Her nose bleeds constantly and her white-blood count is low. Her mother, father and uncle also are hospitalized, with symptoms that include hair loss, skin burns and abnormal blood counts. None is expected to survive.

The accident has provoked anger and fear. There has been a nationwide outcry over the lack of government regulation that allowed a dangerous radioactive substance to be abandoned in a busy urban area, and there have been numerous protests by citizens who want radioactive waste cleaned up, but who do not want it deposited in their back yards.

On Wednesday, Sarney sought to calm the nation's fears by paying a surprise visit to 57th St., where technicians were dismantling Santos Alves's house. He said he had come to demonstrate that the area is safe and the situation under control.

Julio Cesar, a student who was evacuated from the block, along with his mother, his father and his brother, is not so sure.

"The police woke us up at 3 in the morning on Sept. 29 and told us we had to leave because it was dangerous," said Cesar, whose home is next to Santos Alves's.

Thousands protest
"We were thrown out on the street, forced to move to a hotel, and we weren't allowed to take anything with us, not even our clothes. So far we've received no help from the government — only promises. I believe the government must pay for this."

None of the contaminated material has been hauled away from 57th St. or any of the other cleanup sites, because the government cannot decide what to do with it. The material, including dirt and clothing, has been put in steel drums in the roped-off areas where, technicians say, it is emitting low levels of radiation. When Sarney announced the waste was to be taken to Para, there were demonstrations by, among others, the tribes who live in Para.

When Sarney announced that the waste was to be taken to a remote region of Para in the interior and buried, there were demonstrations by, among others, the Indian tribes who live in Para.

Last week about 100 Indians, wearing shorts and shell earrings and carrying spears, showed their displeasure by performing a war dance on the steps of the capital in Brasilia.

Thousands of people marched in Belem, students demonstrated in Goiania, and in Alta Floresta hundreds of children, some wearing gas masks, took to the streets to protest the dumping of atomic waste.

Plenty of blame
And so the waste remains, creating an unpleasant situation for people who live near the sites. Homemaker Inan Borges Moreira lives on 63rd St. next to the contaminated house of Wagner Moto, who helped Santos Alves open the fatal box. Moto is hospitalized with severe burns; doctors say he may lose both hands and feet to amputation.

"The authorities say it is OK to stay here, but everyone is confused," said Borges Moreira. "Some people on the block are leaving, some people are staying. I don't know what I'll do."

She said there is plenty of blame to go around for the disaster.

"The operators of the clinic were responsible for the machine, but the government has responsibility for regulating radioactive materials," she said.

As for the victims, she said, "it was not their fault. They didn't know. But perhaps some blame must rest with our society, which allows a low class of people to scavenge in order to live."


Promised Land:
Reuters, Jul 11, 2000
  A flood of Biblical proportions brings down death and destruction upon a shantytown.  
Associated Press, Feb 12, 2002
  A dying breed await restitution from the government.