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Brazilian city grapples with ghosts of radiation accident

May 21, 1997

GOIANIA, Brazil (AP) _ The moment his brother gave him the glowing blue stone, Ernesto Fabiano somehow sensed it would mark his life forever. And it did.

One of the marks is an 8-inch crater on his thigh next to the pocket where he carried the bean-sized stone, wrapped in a handkerchief.

Another is the metal shaft that holds his femur together, so weakened by the stone that last year it snapped like kindling when he was playing with his granddaughter.

Fabiano, 57, is a survivor of the worst episode of radiation poisoning in the Western Hemisphere.

In 1987, chunks of cesium 137 were unwittingly distributed as curiosities in Goiania. The radioactive stones killed four people, sickened 103 others, and condemned a still-unknown number of others in this city of 1 million to lingering illness and deaths.

When Fabiano and his friends learned the truth about the stone he showed around as a kind of lucky charm, he became a pariah. ``They looked at me as if I had AIDS,″ he said.

Ten years later, the city _ and Fabiano _ still are struggling to make peace with their ghosts.

``The psychological wounds have been far worse than the physical damage,″ Dr. Maria Paula Curado said.

Curado is a cancer doctor at the Leide das Neves Ferreira Foundation, named after a 6-year-old girl who died after eating particles of the stone.

``The wounds are inside their heads, and there’s no way to measure the extent of the damage,″ she said. ``They all suffer from paranoia, blaming cesium for every bad thing that happens to them.″

The nightmare began one sweltering summer afternoon, when scavengers picking over the ruins of an abandoned cancer clinic found a lead capsule in a machine once used for radiation therapy. They took the capsule and sold it to scrap dealers.

At Devair Alves Ferreira’s junkyard, employees broke open the casing with a sledgehammer and marveled at what they saw _ a gleaming stone, weighing about 3.5 ounces. Friends, including Fabiano’s brother, flocked to stare at the stone. Some took small pieces of it.

Fabiano wrapped his fragment in a handkerchief, stuck it in his pocket and headed for the neighborhood bar. An hour and several beers later, he was home, showing the stone to his wife and wondering if it might have magical powers.

A week later, he was in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Rio de Janeiro, 580 miles to the south, with dizziness, vomiting and a huge blister on his reddening leg, from which surgeons were chipping away dead flesh.

He was not alone. Thirteen other people who had seen the wondrous stone up close also were in ICUs. Over the next few days, four of them died, including Ferreira’s niece, Leide.

Panic spread as people who had indirect exposure to the stone were also hospitalized. Thousands rushed to emergency rooms, fearing they had been contaminated.

For 16 days, chunks of cesium had been carried around town. Everyone who had direct contact with it received a radiation dose of between 400 and 1,000 rems _ as much as some victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts in World War II.

Over the years, three more people died from radiation-related cancer. Ferreira, the scrap dealer, died in 1994 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Doctors at the Leide das Neves Ferreira Foundation track dozens of residents who may have been exposed to radiation. None has shown symptoms of radiation poisoning such as leukemia, lymphomas or fetal malformations, but many radiation-caused illnesses take years to surface.

Authorities are trying to dull the memories and calm the lingering fears.

The junkyard where the capsule was opened is now an abandoned lot. A civic center was built on the site of the cancer clinic. There are no signs, no reminders of what happened there.

Whatever was left of the original chunk of cesium and everything that was contaminated _ 6,000 tons of clothing, furniture, pieces of buildings, even dirt _ were packed in steel drums and containers and carted away to an abandoned quarry.

The refuse now is buried in underground, earthquake-proof concrete vaults. The quarry, with its deadly waste, was filled in and made into a 320-acre park. The site is a low, pyramid-shaped mound, surrounded by lush green grass.

Radiation levels are periodically tested by the Brazilian Nuclear Energy Commission in a laboratory built in the center of the site.

The park, due to be inaugurated this year, officially will be named after 6-year-old Leide das Neves Ferreira. Residents already have their own name for it: Cesium Park.

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