Cause and Effect

The Darker Side of Herbie

Little known fact, but Herbie, the loveable Volkswagen Beetle with a personality and a heart of gold, was actually responsible for the deaths of four people in Brazil, countless cases of radiation sickness, and one of the worst nuclear contamination incidents in modern times. It’s true!

The Saucy Minx herself, Murilee Martin, tipped us off recently to the story of the Goiânia Accident in Brazil in 1987. It’s a sordid tale, with many unscrupulous characters involved, but when the radioactive dust settles, it’s fairly clear who the real culprit is: Herbie, the Love Bug himself.

You see, Herbie’s unrepentant charm and incomparable widespread appeal led to a security guard, Voudireinão da Silva, calling in sick from the abandoned hospital he was supposed to be protecting from looters, scavengers and thieves. Rather than going to work, he falsely called in sick, and took his young family to the movies to see Herbie Goes Bananas. We certainly can’t condone skipping out on work, but come on! It’s Herbie! Who could possibly blame him for that?

Well, as soon as da Silva’s back was turned — or more accurately, as soon as he was comfortably seated in the theatre — the looters moved in. The hospital was a former radiotherapy unit that had moved to an expanded location. Details remain in dispute, but it appears that the hospital was not completely cleared of all equipment when the new owners took possession. When the hospital administrators tried to remove further equipment — including teletherapy units which used radioactive Caesium-137 — they ended up in a legal battle with each arguing that the other had no rights to the property.

Interestingly, in this whole legal argument, virtually nobody seemed concerned in the slightest that there was, you know, radioactive material just sitting around, with naught but a single security guard to protect it. It was thought that since Caesium cannot be used to create a nuclear reaction — like a bomb — that the risks were low. It was later pointed out, however, that it was the perfect candidate for a “dirty bomb”, and as such the precautions should have been much greater, even without accounting for the risk of radiation exposure.

A typical teletherapy radiation capsule composed of the following: (A) an international standard source holder (usually lead), (B) a retaining ring, and (C) a teletherapy “source” composed of (D) two nested stainless steel canisters welded to (E) two stainless steel lids surrounding (F) an internal shield (usually uranium metal or a tungsten alloy) that protects (G) a cylinder of radioactive source material, often but not always cobalt-60. The diameter of the “source” is 30mm. (Image and caption from Wikipedia)

As luck would have it, however, the capsule, containing roughly 100g of Caesium-137, did not fall into the hands of terrorists, but rather into the hands of scavengers, looking for bits of scrap metal that they could sell, melt down, or re-use. They found the small containment module — a small cylinder measuring roughly two inches in diameter and two inches long — and brought it home to try and sell. As it appeared to be a container that would hold something valuable, the scavengers — Roberto Alves and Wagner Pereira — attempted to crack it open.

This was a colossally bad idea, but having no way of knowing that they were playing with radioactive isotopes, they attacked the container with enthusiasm, even when they each started to develop symptoms of radiation poisoning. Vomiting, diarrhoea, even radiation burns in the shape of the capsule started to show up; all things that should have been warnings in retrospect, but were dismissed as symptoms of mild food poisoning, and they persisted with the dismantling of the tiny capsule.

Eventually, they were rewarded for their efforts. They managed to crack their way inside the module through the dosage aperture, and witnessed a deep, bright blue glow coming from within. As we’ve documented a few times, this was most likely Cherenkov radiation, due to the extreme affinity caesium chloride has for reacting with any sort of moisture whatsoever.

Cherenkov radiation

Pereira and Alves were disappointed, however, as the glowing powder inside didn’t seem to have any significant value. After keeping a small amount as a souvenir, they sold it to a scrap dealer who was captivated by the hypnotic blue glow. The scrap dealer, Devair Ferreira, tried to melt some of the powder down to make a ring for his wife. His daughter also managed to play with a bit of the powder, even getting some on a sandwich she was eating.

In the end, Ferreira’s wife and daughter, as well as two of Ferreira’s employees, would receive massive doses of radiation, and ended up dying several weeks later of horribly painful symptoms. Internal bleeding, liver and kidney failures, rupturing of their eyes, massive swelling throughout their bodies; it was a positively chilling way to go. Ferreira’s daughter had such contamination she was buried in a lead coffin, and entombed in concrete to attempt to limit the levels of radiation that were still emanating from her body. In a bizarre twist, Ferreira himself received by far the largest dose of anyone, and by some reports a larger dose than his two employees combined, and somehow survived. 249 others were treated for significant levels of radiation sickness.

The levels of radiation that many people in the populace of Goiânia were exposed to exceeded ten times the worst levels observed during the Fukushima disaster of last year. Even during the cleanup, the levels in parts of Ferreira’s scrapyard exceeded five times the Fukushima levels. This was a very significant exposure, made so much worse by the fact that caesium chloride is so enthusiastically water soluble, so it can vanish into the surrounding environment so quickly.

The Goiânia incident changed the way the world responds to nuclear accidents, and how we handle radioactive materials. There were a great many lessons learned, sadly at the expense of several lives. Yet the rules and regulations that arose out of this accident have likely saved thousands of other lives since.

Quite a legacy for a anthropomorphized Volkswagen.

  • MrHowser

    All that badness from a guy going to see the worst* of the four Herbie movies.

    *The Lohan abomination doesn't count. Neither does the TV movie.

  • tiberiusẅisë

    Herbie Goes Bananas was seven years old at the time. I'd like to see his ticket stub before he starts blaming this on a loveable Beetle. I think we're more likely to see a large unaccountable cash deposit in his bank account on that day.

    • discontinuuity

      Not everything gets translated into Brazilian Portuguese right away.

      • tiberiusẅisë

        1, Are you saying the Herbie movies had dialogue?

        2, We adopted the Brazilian grooming habits fairly quickly.

  • Charles_Barrett

    Or we can just shop third-world and buy 'hot' patio furniture, or build with 'hot' imported rebar.

    "…For example, in Mexico, notes Hesch, a source containing cobalt was transferred from a scrap yard and was smelted. This contaminated the steel mills and the products they produced. Radioactive rebar was built into patio furniture that was shipped to the United States and distributed in 40 states. Rebar was also imbedded at construction sites…"

    From an article in Recycling Today, 7 August 2001

  • The Professor

    I remember reading about the Goiânia incident back then, and thinking just how much more dangerous the world had gotten. The Third World countries hadn't yet learned some of the hard lessons about radioactive substances, and their ignorance could endanger us all, and did (see Charles' comment above) and still does. Such tragic affairs, and so inevitable.
    Now I'm all depressed. I'm going to go blow something into a fine plasma….

    • CaptianNemo2001

      Beer bottle in a neighbors microwave? While hes "out of town"?

      Cobalt- 60 is scarey shit and Caesium-137 is hardly less scarey the the Cobalt… I guess I am more afraid of a maniac with Cobalt- 60 and Caesium-137 running on the lose then some nutcase with a nuclear device… but that me. Not I need to go find something happy… Thankfully my neighbor is out of town and I got me some beer bottles… do da do….

  • The Daily Dot had an article recently on the most disturbing Wikipedia entries and the one detailing this incident was one of them.

  • CaptianNemo2001

    We have featured articles?

    • SSurfer321

      Apparently so. But why a 6 month old article is featured is beyond me. I did enjoy re-reading it though.

      • Deartháir

        We do; I'm gradually doing some behind-the-scenes stuff to prepare for an eventual facelift for AtomicToasters. Rather than trying to do everything all at once, I'm going to add some of the new functionality into the current layout. So I'm highlighting old articles from the archives that I think deserve a second glance.

        Obviously I know my own articles best, so they'll get featured first. Right up until our contributors start recommending articles for me, or until the Commentariat suggests some of their own favourite featured articles.

        • fodder650

          Well it looks like the new Word Press is going to give you some new toys to play with. I was already impressed with the changes this morning when I wrote an article. I like how it handles images and media now. So if this is the tools we writers get then I can only imagine what the administrators can do.

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  • CruisinTime

    Top notch story,a thimble full of caesium chloride killing and injuring all those people.