RIO DE JANEIRO — Six-year-old Leide Ferreira, severely burned by radioactive material from an abandoned cancer therapy machine, is not expected to live. She is one of 34 victims of a radiation accident that Brazilian authorities say was the worst of its kind anywhere.
Brazil has requested the help of foreign specialists to help treat the victims and to participate in cleanup efforts. Experts have begun arriving from West Germany, the Soviet Union, the United States and other countries.
The accident, which has caused a furor in Brazil over nuclear safety, was the result of ignorance and negligence, according to official and unofficial accounts.
It began last month in the dusty inland city of Goiania, about 600 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro. Scavengers removed a heavy, lead-lined machine from the former clinic of the Goiano Radiotherapy Institute. The machine, used for treating cancer with controlled doses of radiation, had been left behind when the institute was moved to a new building.
A couple of the scavengers broke the machine in two and took it to the junkyard of Devair Ferreira, a scrap-metal dealer. Not knowing what they had, the three removed a cylinder and broke it open.
The glowing "stone" inside, a compressed material that disintegrated easily into powder, was cesium 137, a potentially lethal radioactive material.
Ferreira sold the machine's lead casing and kept the cesium around his house for several days. It was handled by curious family members, neighbors and friends, some of whom rubbed it over themselves. None realized the harm that was being done them.
"It let off a blue glow in the dark," Ferreira later recalled. "It was pretty."
Thirty-four people ended up in the hospital. The most seriously burned, including Ferreira and his daughter, Leide, are at the Naval Hospital here in Rio de Janeiro.
Leide has internal burns, reportedly from radioactive dust swallowed with bread that she ate after playing with the cesium. She and others have burns and blisters on their skin, and some have lost their hair.
Leide, her father and another victim are listed in "very grave" condition. Doctors say the three are not expected to live more than a month or two.
Rex Nazareth, president of the National Nuclear Energy Commission, said the cesium accident was unique.
"It was the biggest accidental contamination with that product in the world," he said.
Federal police have begun an investigation to determine whether criminal negligence was involved.
Dr. Orlando Alves Teixeira, part-owner of the radiology clinic, said the machine was left in the abandoned building because a court order against the clinic's previous owner barred the removal of the equipment.
The Nuclear Energy Commission, responsible for regulating radiation therapy equipment, said the owners never reported the problem.
"They could have informed us of the problem, and we would have explained to the court the danger of that kind of decision," said Luis Arrieta, executive director of the commission. "But they did not even inform us of the deactivation of the machine."
The accident has raised concerns about safety procedures in Brazil's nuclear energy program. President Jose Sarney announced in early September that the government has mastered a technology for enriching uranium for use in reactors and medical therapy.
Congressman Fabio Feldman commented: "A country that a month ago announced its domination of uranium enrichment has shown that it is not even prepared to deal with hospital equipment using nuclear energy."
Jose Goldemberg, a nuclear physicist and rector of the University of Sao Paulo, said the nuclear commission has shown itself "incapable of controlling all of the radioactive material scattered around different points of our territory, and that is extremely serious."
Goldemberg said he believes it will take much longer than a year to completely decontaminate Goiania.
"The cesium was spread around and there is no method for recovering all of that powder," he said.
In Goiania, a nuclear commission team continues to search for signs of contamination. The street where Ferreira's junkyard is situated has been evacuated and sealed off, and many nearby residents have abandoned their homes.
Contaminated earth, clothing and other material has been hauled away in hundreds of concrete-lined drums.