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Don't eat the magic blue glitter
March 31, 2011 10:32 AM   Subscribe

In 1971, a clinic in Brazil bought a radiation therapy machine. Fourteen years later, the practice closed and was abandoned. On September 13th, 1987, two men sold the inner canister of the machine for scrap. Upon breaking it open, a scrapyard employee found sparkling, glowing blue powder. It was distributed to family and friends, who used for decorative and magical purposes. Sixteen days later, 112,000 people were in Olympic stadium, being tested for radiation poisoning.

"The powder enthralled everyone. Devair began to suspect that it might be supernatural. His brother dipped a finger into the dust and drew a cross on his abdomen. Maria slept in bedclothes covered in the sparkly blue dust. Neighbors and acquaintances came to the Ferreiras’ home to take some of the mystical powder for good luck. Six-year-old Leide rubbed the powder all over her arms so that she glowed and sparkled. The bedclothes, the house, and the girl were covered in crystals."

The Goiânia accident was a radioactive contamination accident that occurred in the Brazilian State of Goiás. It resulted in four deaths and radioactive contamination of 245 other people.

There are some pictures of the clinic and very specific stats here.

The Legacy of Goiânia. (YT)
posted by nevercalm (123 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite

 
"She was buried in a lead coffin, sealed with concrete."
What a terrible story. This is a tragic ending for a child.
posted by Plutor at 10:44 AM on March 31, 2011 [7 favorites]


Wow. Holy god.
posted by spicynuts at 10:44 AM on March 31, 2011


Anyone have a mirror of the first link? Looks as if someone didn't learn the lesson that you shouldn't store static web content in a database.
posted by hominid211 at 10:46 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


God damn, that's scary.
posted by Songdog at 10:48 AM on March 31, 2011


The folly of humanity. Magic powder? They almost threw it away in the damn river! What stupidity.
posted by ReeMonster at 10:48 AM on March 31, 2011


Marie Curie -- a person I consider among the most brilliant scientists -- used to keep vials of radioactive material in her desk because she thought they were pretty. No one knew at the time what ionizing radiation did.
posted by sbutler at 10:48 AM on March 31, 2011 [16 favorites]


First link is working fine for me, but if you're having problems, here is the google cache of the page.
posted by hippybear at 10:48 AM on March 31, 2011


There was a Captain Planet episode based on this. Truly awful.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 10:49 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jesus. Shit.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:50 AM on March 31, 2011


Marie Curie was considerably before 1987.
posted by DU at 10:51 AM on March 31, 2011


I didn't mean OMG-steam-from-the-other-side-of-the-world scary, but rather: terrifying to imagine children playing with such intensely toxic stuff distributed throughout a neighborhood.

I thought the mercury I played with as a child was bad enough.
posted by Songdog at 10:51 AM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Recommend everyone own a Geiger counter and learn about the different types of radiation (Alpha, Beta and Gama). The world is awash in radiation. For example when Plutonium (one of the most deadly types) was found on the grounds of the Japanese reactor, it was later determined it was leftover Plutonium from the 1950s or 60s nuclear testing - it was just there in the soil, like it is all over the world. Of course it was small amounts, but a tiny dust grain that is inhaled will never leave the body and can cause cancer.
posted by stbalbach at 10:53 AM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


The folly of humanity. Magic powder? They almost threw it away in the damn river! What stupidity.

That doesn't seem fair. What sort of knowledge do you have about the context that you feel empowered to call those people stupid? In the absence of any sort of knowledge to the contrary, I imagine that you and I both would have a good chance of labeling glowing blue powder as, at the very least, harmless stuff to be used as decoration and plaything.
posted by invitapriore at 10:55 AM on March 31, 2011 [40 favorites]


DU, true but the people in question were probably rural, and this was back when Brazil was more third world. They'd probably never gotten any education about radioactivity, or much of anything beyond how to be a peasant.

Heck, here in the USA we had a similar problem with an Arkansas community and a bunch of improperly disposed of mercury. Kids played in it, teenagers dipped cigarettes in it and smoked them, and in the end they had a couple dozen deaths, hundreds of cases of mercury toxicity, etc.

I think the world would be improved if we included basic toxic and otherwise hazardous materials training in schools. We've got megatons of dangerous crap around, and the manufacturers can't be bothered to properly dispose of it all, so we need better education.
posted by sotonohito at 10:57 AM on March 31, 2011 [16 favorites]


This is why science education for pretty much everyone is important. If it glows for more than about twelve hours after being exposed to light, look out.
posted by adipocere at 10:58 AM on March 31, 2011 [21 favorites]


This story is basically a metaphor for the question of how we will warn future generations of the radioactive waste we will leave behind. The problem has been explored. But I don't think anyone has adequately answered how we communicate with people milleniums from now who may not understand our current symbols or languages. Or how they may not even comprehend the extent to which we've placed the burden on them for our decisions.
posted by quadog at 11:01 AM on March 31, 2011 [9 favorites]


That doesn't seem fair. What sort of knowledge do you have about the context that you feel empowered to call those people stupid?

The longer ago something happened, the dumber people seem. Kind of like, I wish I were living thousands of years from now when humanity looks back on organized religion and chuckles, "What morons!"
posted by ReeMonster at 11:02 AM on March 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


Who are we calling stupid here? The victims, who did nothing more than pick up an interesting object? I'm not sure that even qualifies as ignorance. Who here hasn't picked up a pretty rock they found? Did you quarantine it? Wave your geiger counter over it? Consult a physicist? If there's any stupidity at all in this story, it was the initial abandonment of the unit.
posted by sageleaf at 11:02 AM on March 31, 2011 [48 favorites]


The "ooga booga magic" part of this seems really overemphasized and more than a little patronizing. It was a tragic accident caused primarily by nonexistent disposal procedures, and the fact that the victims were folk-magic practitioners is really beside the point.
posted by theodolite at 11:03 AM on March 31, 2011 [9 favorites]


I think the scariest thing is that most radiation accidents have been, more or less, preventable. It's not just the Goiânia accident. Most of the radiation accidents in the world have been preventable. From the wiki on the second incident with the "demon core":

On May 21, 1946 physicist Louis Slotin and seven other scientists were in a Los Alamos laboratory conducting an experiment to verify the exact point at which a subcritical mass (core) of fissile material could be made critical by the positioning of neutron reflectors. It required the operator to place two half-spheres of beryllium (a neutron reflector) around the core to be tested and manually lower the top reflector over the core via a thumb hole on the top. As the reflectors were manually moved closer and further away from each other, scintillation counters measured the relative activity from the core. Allowing them to close completely would result in the instantaneous formation of a critical mass and a lethal power excursion, and the only thing preventing this was the blade of a standard flathead screwdriver manipulated by the scientist's other hand. The test was known as "tickling the dragon's tail" for its extreme risk, and was notoriously unforgiving of even the smallest mistake; many scientists refused to perform the test, but Slotin (who was given to bravado) became the local expert, performing the test almost a dozen separate times, often in his trademark bluejeans and cowboy boots in front of a roomful of observers. Enrico Fermi reportedly told Slotin and others they would be "dead within a year" if they continued performing it.
While lowering the top reflector, Slotin's screwdriver slipped a fraction of an inch, allowing the top reflector to fall into place around the core. Instantly there was a flash of blue light and a wave of heat across Slotin's skin; the core had become supercritical, releasing a massive burst of neutron radiation. He quickly knocked the two halves apart, stopping the chain reaction and likely saving the lives of the other men in the laboratory. Slotin's body positioning over the apparatus also shielded the others from much of the neutron radiation. He received a massively lethal dose in under a second and died 9 days later from acute radiation poisoning.
emphasis added

Slotin was a physicist and had a clue about how stupidly dangerous his experiment was, but did it anyway. He was a physicist FFS. God help the random uneducated person who gets ahold of radioactive material.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 11:05 AM on March 31, 2011 [41 favorites]


If there's any stupidity at all in this story, it was the initial abandonment of the unit.

The truth lies here.
posted by hippybear at 11:06 AM on March 31, 2011 [36 favorites]


I remember when this happened, a terrible tragedy. And the scary take-home for everybody is: how much low level radioactive junk is still out there? This caesium chloride stuff was left in the open, but a whole lot of other waste is buried in shallow pits here and there, or dropped into the sea. It went on all over the world for many years, and still does.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:07 AM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


The folly of humanity. Magic powder? They almost threw it away in the damn river! What stupidity.

Ignorance ≠ Stupidity
That 'folly of humanity' you're lamenting is a continual process of education and evolution. I don't look back at my ancestors and see morons. I look back and see the innovators and survivors who lived long enough to have kids, one of which turned out to be me.
posted by carsonb at 11:11 AM on March 31, 2011 [6 favorites]


OK before this gets out of hand.. I was NOT intending to derail this thread with my snide remarks. I'm continually amazed at how sensitive people can be on this site. Does no one on Metafilter have a dark/humorous take on human folly? Maybe I'm too much a George Carlin fan and approach these things with an ounce of removal. Kind of like the quip.. "a person is smart.. PEOPLE are stupid." Well, I believe that's true, because we live in a world full of amazing people, and as a global society, all we do is kill each other and take advantage of each other. In this case, a few well-meaning people thought well to spread pretty blue powder on themselves and their children. Big picture? Lots of poisoning and they came SO close to contaminating a river.
posted by ReeMonster at 11:11 AM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is a rare, and tragic, real-life illustration of Clarke's Third Law.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:15 AM on March 31, 2011 [9 favorites]


FoB, I wish I had remembered Clarke's laws when I made this post...that's a great addition.
posted by nevercalm at 11:17 AM on March 31, 2011


This sounds very much like that incident in Juarez where cobalt-60 from a scrapped medical machine was recycled into rebar and table legs.
posted by zombiedance at 11:18 AM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


Marie Curie was considerably before 1987.

I know. But reading about how all the villagers thought the cesium salts were beautiful and magical brought the story to mind.
posted by sbutler at 11:18 AM on March 31, 2011


I'm continually amazed at how sensitive people can be on this site. Does no one on Metafilter have a dark/humorous take on human folly?

Lots of people here do, but expecting the family of a junkyard owner to somehow intuit that sparkly powder is dangerous based on...who know what, just makes your first statement sound ignorant, not dark or humorous.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:20 AM on March 31, 2011 [17 favorites]


Ironically, the characterization of this material by these "stupid" uneducated people was remarkably accurate: in a very real, very literal sense, that much pure, isolated cesium chloride really is supernatural.
posted by Dr. Eigenvariable at 11:21 AM on March 31, 2011 [8 favorites]


Any thoughts on why the story told in the first and third links differs from the Wikipedia article so markedly?

According to the Wiki article, both the clinic owners and the Courts knew that toxic material was in the building. Security guards were assigned to watch it. The scrappers snuck in when a guard didn't show up for work.

According to the articles, the building and the machine were abandoned. The building was so open and insecure that homeless people were sleeping in it. The scrappers walked in as easily as everybody else.

I'm curious as to which version is correct, and why they differ so much.
posted by Georgina at 11:22 AM on March 31, 2011 [5 favorites]


Somebody forgot that, even in stories, magic is dangerous and will fuck you up if you don't know what you're doing.
posted by localroger at 11:27 AM on March 31, 2011 [13 favorites]


And the scary take-home for everybody is: how much low level radioactive junk is still out there?

This kind of source is definitely not what you would call low level radioactive junk: It was a serious source, whose lethal potential was tragically demonstrated. The fact that it was lost like that is a serious failure on the part of the administrative mechanisms that should have been keeping track of it.

Sources like that are called orphan sources, and the radiation protection community has been increasingly aware of them as a problem since Goiania. Due to the heavy metal shielding, they often get picked up by scrap dealers and end up in foundries - in many countries, foundries are required by law to screen incoming scrap using portal detectors to address this exact problem.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:28 AM on March 31, 2011 [5 favorites]


A few years ago in Rhode Island, some kids broke into a warehouse and found a big jar of mercury...like 140 pounds of the stuff. Utility workers had just stored the stuff there instead of disposing of it properly.

The utility company paid $6 million in cleanup plus an $18 million fine because "'Companies that handle hazardous chemicals like mercury need to follow the law designed to protect the public and the environment,' said Acting Assistant Attorney General Cruden." Or in other words, you have to know what you're doing.

See two pages of details at www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/cases/.../southern-union-10-02-09.pdf.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:30 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


As a child, I only had that awful, short-lived zinc sulfide glow base and remember being all excited when someone finally invented a color for it besides yellowish-green (red, if you're interested, for glow in the dark "meteor rocks."), but I suspect that if I were in Brazil in some rural area, I would not have known that you need to "charge" these materials up with light first.
Here is the part where I make a confession: I love glow-in-the-dark stuff. I have pounds and pounds of glow in the dark gravels in different colors. As an adult, I bought a bunch of wide, flattish glass bottles and filled them with the glow-in-the-dark gravel, arranged them by color into something like a rainbow, strung them along a thick cord, then suspended it in my bedroom so I could (after shielding myself) hit it with a blacklight so they would glow softly the entire night. Just a rainbow in the dark, baby. Glowy glowly love it.
So, yeah, science education everywhere.
posted by adipocere at 11:31 AM on March 31, 2011 [6 favorites]


The utility company paid $6 million in cleanup plus an $18 million fine

Really think we need more jailtime for stuff like this.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:33 AM on March 31, 2011 [5 favorites]


The "ooga booga magic" part of this seems really overemphasized and more than a little patronizing. It was a tragic accident caused primarily by nonexistent disposal procedures, and the fact that the victims were folk-magic practitioners is really beside the point.

Yeah. I'm not a big fan of folk-magic, but the fact is that playing with cesium because it's ~~magic~~ gets you no more or less dead than playing with it because it's pretty and/or fun. Note that the guy who took a chunk to make a ring for his wife (a perfectly reasonable non-magical application!) was not protected from serious radiation burns by his rationality.

Humans poke at everything, "magic" or not; once the container was open it was nearly inevitable that someone would spread it around.

The real heroine here was Gabriela Maria Ferreira, whose "ignorance" and "stupidity" didn't keep her from deducing exactly what the problem was. She probably saved hundreds if not thousands from contamination.
posted by vorfeed at 11:37 AM on March 31, 2011 [11 favorites]


Speaking as a: Non-magic believing, intelligent, analytical, US educated person (for whatever that's worth), who spent his childhood primarily watching PBS and studying (got to love 1st generation Asian mothers).. I can say with a bit of horror that at age 10, I found a mercury thermometer, broke it accidentally, and thought that the shiny, quasi-liquid innards were mesmerizing. Granted, my only knowledge of familiarity with this substance was "it's in thermometers" and "Quiksilver" from Marvel comics. I played with this substance for about 20-30 minutes, before making myself a turkey sandwich. For some reason, I have no idea why, after taking a few bites into this sandwich, I decided to open it up. There, lying dead center on the meat were about 2-3 beads of mercury. I simply thought "ew, gross" and brushed them into the trash, and proceeded to finish the sandwich.

It wasn't until much much later that I realize how incredibly lucky I was. I agree that Ignorance does NOT equal stupidity. Cool things are cool, and it's kinda hard to imagine with either a child's innocence or a scrap metal worker's ignorance that something so incredibly hazardous would be kept "out in the open" where people like us could easily get to it. But, it happens all the time, and if anything, the fault lies with the people who abandoned the medical suite, not the others.
posted by Debaser626 at 11:40 AM on March 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


[Couple comments removed, ReeMonster et al please let it drop.]
posted by cortex at 11:42 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read the ignorance and stupidity comment as a general groan about humans than about the people who picked it up. I really dislike the nature of turning a couple words into a goalpost and then fighting on and on about it. It's okay, you're okay, now let's focus on the story
posted by the mad poster! at 11:43 AM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


The folly of humanity. Magic powder? They almost threw it away in the damn river! What stupidity.

Stupid? There's a very distinct line between stupidity and a lack of education, and it's extremely disheartening to see people without the requisite education to understand why a glowing material might be radioactive, what exactly radioactivity is, and what the health consequences of radiation exposure might be and why. It's not so different from the idea that poor people are poor because they are dumb and lazy, and not uneducated because they come from a disadvantaged background.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 11:43 AM on March 31, 2011


Really think we need more jailtime for stuff like this.

Hard to bring off here in Rhodey: I mean, they burned 100+ people to death in a nightclub called The Station the year before, and only two people served any time.

There's even actual footage of the fire, which was captured because "[the cameraman] was there for a planned piece on nightclub safety being reported by Jeffrey Derderian, a WPRI news reporter who was also a part-owner of The Station [the site of the fire]." *facepalm*
posted by wenestvedt at 11:45 AM on March 31, 2011


But I don't want to derail. I mention the mercury accident toi piont out that this is a first world problem and a third-world problem.

People don't have the MSDS on every substance known to man, and wouldn't know what to do with the informaiotn anyway. And admit it: a jug of mercury -- or a bunch of glowing blue powder -- would be a cool thing for a kid to find.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:47 AM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


I revisit this story frequently. It's one of my favorite macabre real-life misadventures of the misinformed.

One of the people who eventually died from it was the wife of one of the salvagers. She had the good sense to associate the appearance of the substance with the illness symptoms of herself and her cohort. She, I maintain, while perhaps ignorant, had good reasoning skills. She took the vast majority of the material to a clinic in a bag, but a good 10% of it was never recovered.

I cannot count the number of times that I have done things that might have gotten me killed because of either inadequate info, general ignorance, cavalier attitude, risk-seeking behavior.

Stupidity sometimes fits as a description, as in the recurring "put an 'unloaded' gun to your head and pull the trigger" theme in the Darwin Chronicles. Or the "I'm going to bite this detonator" path to instant lower jaw elimination. It's when you KNOW something is needless, potentially fatal, and you still do it that Stupid makes its appearance. (Bravery, of course, is doing it when it's needed, dangerous and potentially fatal.)

We're all equally ignorant, in my opinion. The range of human knowledge is too vast for us to have even a small, fractional percentage of it in our heads. If 'smart' and 'alive' were synonymous or even coincident, then we wouldn't have such a large list of formerly alive smart people whose intelligence was unquestionable, but who may have lacked a critical piece of info.

Incidentally, about 30 people per year still die in France from unexploded WW1 and WW2 ordnance that they encounter. The demineurs also die dealing with it. Some of these folks may be stupid. Most are just unfortunate. Would YOU know what a rusty landmine looked like? A grenade? A 155-mm artillery shell? A shell containing phosgene? A German 'potato masher' without a handle?

Don't be so quick to label yourself as informed or smart if you have ever been to France and can't answer these affirmatively.
posted by FauxScot at 11:48 AM on March 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


Huh, I was re-reading about this last week when reading some stuff about the Japan problems and Chrenobal, and I'm really surprised this has never been posted to the blue before.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 11:52 AM on March 31, 2011


I dunno, I'm still gonna go with "that's pretty dumb." Maybe kids are ignorant, but the story names multiple adults who all had possession of the stuff before it ever got to a kid.

Blue? That's not a particularly natural color. Maybe you don't assume it's radioactive automatically, but I'm not gonna assume that a chemical that was sealed in a container within another container is safe. Even common household cleansers shouldn't be rubbed on skin, and they come in cardboard canisters.
posted by explosion at 11:59 AM on March 31, 2011


My old geology professor told a story about the time (less than 20 years ago) that he visited a Northern California hobby and toy store and found them selling pretty rocks with orange and reddish crystals sprouting from them. They were on display with the other crystals and minerals in a display case at kid level.

Arsenic ore.
posted by Graygorey at 12:00 PM on March 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


What about a jar of mercury? Would that be cool for an adult? I mean with a sealed, levered top. Kept in a sealed bag. So you could pick it up and feel it slosh around. Kept in a padded box for the rest of the time. Purely hypothetically.
posted by adipocere at 12:09 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


And they thought it was a sign, a miracle, from God...
posted by Skygazer at 12:15 PM on March 31, 2011


...and it was.
posted by goethean at 12:22 PM on March 31, 2011


Oh the arrogance of the highly educated. Just because you had the immense luck of being born at the right time and place to get a decent education, so that you can know (or think you know) what radioactivity is and snark online about these "stupid" people, does not mean that you are any more intelligent or better than them. Some of the most intelligent people I've met in my life could hardly read and write, if at all.
posted by Skeptic at 12:30 PM on March 31, 2011 [15 favorites]


Liquid mercury is not extremely dangerous, even if ingested. Dimethylmercury, however, is some extremely scary shit that has killed professional toxicologists working in safety-conscious labs.

There are many extremely nonintuitive dangers in the world, even if you have a lot of prior knowledge.

Hey, I've got a lot of Beta radiation to shield myself from, I will wrap it in a nice dense material like lead! That will stop the radiation from getting me.
posted by benzenedream at 12:31 PM on March 31, 2011 [8 favorites]


That's just terrifying.
posted by cp311 at 12:32 PM on March 31, 2011


Graygorey: That arsenic ore is called realgar. I have some, which arrived in a big shipment of unsorted mixed semiprecious gemstone rough, and sold a few with appropriate warnings ("DO NOT LICK TEST"). Though, like liquid mercury, solid arsenic sulfide crystals really aren't that dangerous. Instead of not breathing the vapor for long periods of time, you just have to be careful not to eat them. Seldom a problem.
posted by localroger at 12:35 PM on March 31, 2011


w/e, I would have used the powder to decorate a cake or something. It would be in a shaker in my pantry.
posted by Nattie at 12:39 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


in a very real, very literal sense, that much pure, isolated cesium chloride really is supernatural.

By that standard, this jar of Nutella I have is also supernatural. So much Nutella in one place surely could never occur in nature.

Coincidentally, I believe Nutella is magical and like to rub it on my body.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:43 PM on March 31, 2011 [14 favorites]


Coincidentally, I believe Nutella is magical and like to rub it on my body.

Great, now this thread is poisoned. What is imagined cannot be unimagined.


This is the kind of radioactivity that scares me, if any does, not nuclear power plants. The plants might fail under extreme circumstances, but generally there are experts around and procedures in place to mitigate danger. Shit like medical scanners and the detritus from the Soviet "let's make everything radioactive that we can" era is the real dangerous stuff.
posted by maxwelton at 12:52 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


By that I meant disposing of it properly, of course.
posted by maxwelton at 12:53 PM on March 31, 2011


Coincidentally, I believe Nutella is magical and like to rub it on my body.

Party at qxntpqbbbqxl's place. BYON!

posted by hippybear at 12:53 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


... all this is easy to criticize from the safety of distance, Google, hindsight and not having done it. It takes but a few seconds to find an embarrassing amount on-line of really really stupid shit people do, perhaps even in the house next to you, perhaps even you tomorrow.

anyways... reminds me of the stories of the Radium Watch Dial Girls. Or the reason the phrase is "mad as a hatter".

sigh, we are such a naive race, sometimes I think we should wait another couple hundred years before tackling nuclear power.
posted by edgeways at 12:53 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


qxntpqbbbqxl- Yeah, but that Nutella is composed of isotopes that existed on this planet before the beginning of nuclear testing. Caesium-137 didn't. It is entirely manmade.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:59 PM on March 31, 2011


Just thinking about looking at Cherenkov radiation from a few inches away makes my testicles want to find my center of mass.
posted by Splunge at 1:03 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sorry I'm late -- I'm here to quote Terry Pratchett:

"If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying 'End-of- the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH,' the paint wouldn't even have time to dry." (From Thief of Time)

... now, if you'll excuse me, there's much need of this quotation elsewhere ...
posted by namasaya at 1:04 PM on March 31, 2011 [9 favorites]


This reminds me of Spring Valley, the WWI chemical munitions dump recently "re-discovered" on the grounds of American University in Washington DC.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:11 PM on March 31, 2011


Regarding mesmerizing, bright blue objects: After traveling to Mount Etna, my grandmother came back with a souvenir for me and my brother, a bright blue crystal that looked more or less like this.

Sitting squarely in my first-world bedroom, I handled it repeatedly, and probably inhaled some of the dust that it slowly turned into, over time. I did not know what it was then, and I do not know what it is now.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 1:11 PM on March 31, 2011


Caesium Badger don't care, he will fuck you up. :(
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:14 PM on March 31, 2011


Growing up, my Dad created seriously cool lucite sculptures, and I often spent time with him in his workshop, helping out. Did you know that, in order to bond lucite pieces to each other, you use Benzene? That shit got all over the place, I distinctly remember the smell. My father died of cancer at 66, and I often wonder how it is that I'm still alive at 48. Point is, sometimes you just don't know what the heck you're dealing with, I doubt that my father would have allowed me to handle this stuff, if he knew the longterm ramifications.
posted by dbiedny at 1:19 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


See, all those Brazilians needed was to drink some Radithor -- radium-infused water fixes everything! I mean, who needs a jaw anyway?

And if the off-the-shelf stuff was too expensive, make your own. Just don't drink it out of your Fiestaware.
posted by AzraelBrown at 1:27 PM on March 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


Puts me in mind of this askme, where Flood's friend was trying to get rid of 3 lbs of mercury.
posted by zamboni at 1:30 PM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


evidenceofabuse, that looks like copper sulfate. Not something you'd want to sprinkle on your oatmeal, but not terribly toxic either.
posted by localroger at 1:34 PM on March 31, 2011


Swallowed elemental mercury supposedly passes right through without significant absorption, but mercury vapor is readily taken up in the lungs.

Many older laboratory buildings were (are?) heavily contaminated because mercury was used a lot in experimental work and occasionally spilled. The famed Michelson-Morley experiments demonstrating the constancy of the speed of light in all directions were conducted on a big turntable floating in a vat of mercury, for example.

Adipocere, could you possibly be satisfied with gallium? It melts around 86F and is of "low toxicity" according to Emsley's The Elements-- but it's not quite half as heavy as mercury.
posted by jamjam at 1:34 PM on March 31, 2011


I often wondered how much cancer is caused by irresponsible disposal of radioactive material. After these past couple of weeks of reading the myriad accounts of previously unpublicized nuclear experiments/accidents around the globe I no longer wonder.
posted by any major dude at 1:36 PM on March 31, 2011


Oh thank god I'm not going to die. [beat] Hey, look, I can buy more on eBay!
posted by evidenceofabsence at 1:39 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


sigh, we are such a naive race, sometimes I think we should wait another couple hundred years before tackling nuclear power.

But, if we had done so in the 1940s, after the timeout we'd be embracing it just as naively as we did back then. We know of its dangers because of the accidents we've had. That's how we learn, by trial and error. Ever wondered how we learnt which substances are poisonous and what the lethal doses are? Well, mostly by accident (plus a few cases of malice). This is why I get incensed when people mistake knowledge and intelligence: most of what we know, we owe to ignorant, but intelligent people who figured it out.
posted by Skeptic at 1:51 PM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


any major dude: the vast majority of the average person's radiation exposure is from natural sources, with a small contribution from medical diagnostic investigations and passing through the stratosphere when flying in a jet.

You have to be spectacularly unfortunate to be exposed to this kind of radioactive material.
posted by pharm at 1:52 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Enrico Fermi reportedly told Slotin and others they would be "dead within a year" if they
> continued performing it.

Wow. If I were a radiation physicist and Enrico Fermi told me I was doing something crazy dangerous, I'd like to think I would listen. Maybe not, though, high intelligence and stupidity go together all too well.

> Or in other words, you have to know what you're doing.

...with "and do it" being the other half of that.
posted by jfuller at 2:06 PM on March 31, 2011


Hospital staff had to decontaminate patients’ skin anew every day, using a mix of soapy water and a diluted acid, because their sweat kept re-contaminating their own skin from the inside.

Holy crap.
posted by gottabefunky at 2:15 PM on March 31, 2011


Stupidity /= ignorance. Move on.
posted by gottabefunky at 2:15 PM on March 31, 2011


I remember reading about this story years ago, and it stuck with me. I was a year older than Leide.

I was a gifted kid in a US suburb, but I was also a sucker for anything glittery, fluorescent, iridescent, or glow-in-the-dark. Most of my toys and school supplies had some sort of sparkly element. I knew to stay away from downed power lines, matches, and the bottles under the sink, but glowing and glittering stuff was a friendly presence. I probably would have done the same thing.

To tell the truth, if I found a pile of blue glitter somewhere in a scrap heap, my first thought probably wouldn't be "oh shit that's radioactive," but "ooh, shiny!" It may not be something found in nature, but we aren't taught that we're in any danger of randomly stumbling across cesium chloride.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:15 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Gallium is nice, and especially fun for that whole spoon trick.

I like the heaviness of mercury, though. The shiny part is only a small percentage of the allure. Most of it is really about how my eyes see a small amount of liquid but my hand says "Damn, what is this heavy stuff sloshing around in this jar?" The disconnect between the two senses is what I find interesting.

Elemental mercury isn't all that terrible. They used to give people glasses of it as a laxative. I suppose something almost fourteen times as dense as water flowing through you will knock out anything in your alimentary canal as it slams its way towards the exit.

I promise not to buy the seventy-six pound flasks of mercury for the purposes of making a pool to lay on, though. Honest.
posted by adipocere at 2:32 PM on March 31, 2011


I think I'm going to go with the adult victims being stupid. I'm aware that a lot of people around me go through life happy to not understand the things around them, faithful that others will ensure that their world won't hurt them, but that trait is a form of ignorance that sets you up to act stupidly.

Eg. Everyone driving a car should know whether their car has ABS brakes, what that does and doesn't do, and how that should affect their methods of operating that car. Even something as simple as this is something a lot of people can't be bothered with, and that is stupidity.

A powder that glows without a power source and doesn't fade is so far outside my realm of experience it would set alarm bells screaming. Any time I encounter magic, I don't mess with it until I learn what it is. It just seems like common sense to me. I am acutely aware of when I don't understand what something is.

I've done my share of stupid things in other ways, but I'm going to call a spade a spade - if you don't understand at some level how the things you interact with work, you're being stupid.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:41 PM on March 31, 2011


This does not apply to children, because children are still learning the world, and depend on their parents to protect them from dangers that they don't yet understand.

Likewise, I don't see taking unknown risks as stupid when you're acutely aware that you're taking an unknown risk and have done as much as you can.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:46 PM on March 31, 2011


There are many extremely nonintuitive dangers in the world, even if you have a lot of prior knowledge.

No kidding. You ever come face to face with a pissed off koala bear, you back away slowly.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:48 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


What, you mean he doesn't want belly-rubs?
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:58 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


That poor little girl. She thought the stuff was so pretty.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:00 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


You ever come face to face with a pissed off koala bear, you back away slowly.

OBGalaxyQuest: They're so cuuuuute...
posted by localroger at 3:09 PM on March 31, 2011


in a very real, very literal sense, that much pure, isolated cesium chloride really is supernatural.

Well, the radioactive form. The regular form is pretty mundane, according to wikipedia. It's also not supernatural because it exists in nature.
Blue? That's not a particularly natural color.
Blue isn't a natural color? What?
posted by delmoi at 3:12 PM on March 31, 2011


A powder that glows without a power source and doesn't fade is so far outside my realm of experience it would set alarm bells screaming. Any time I encounter magic, I don't mess with it until I learn what it is. It just seems like common sense to me. I am acutely aware of when I don't understand what something is.
You sound ridiculously paranoid. You run away every time you encounter something you don't understand? That seems so absurd it's hard to believe.
posted by delmoi at 3:15 PM on March 31, 2011


You sound ridiculously paranoid. You run away every time you encounter something you don't understand? That seems so absurd it's hard to believe.

No, if you've been paying attention to understanding things around you, you have a pretty powerful foundation, and it's very rare to hit something that is a big unknown.

For people who don't pay much attention to understanding their world, it happens many times a day.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:22 PM on March 31, 2011


Blue isn't a natural color? What?

I assume he means it's an unusual colour in nature?

Blue animals are uncommon. Blue plants are uncommon. Blue minerals are uncommon.

They all exist. They're often not too hard to find, but they're uncommon compared to other colours.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:25 PM on March 31, 2011


explosion: Maybe you don't assume it's radioactive automatically, but I'm not gonna assume that a chemical that was sealed in a container within another container is safe.

Ya, but you don't spend your days taking apart gear to recycle. Personally, I do spend a lot of time at that activity. I certainly do think about the hazards involved, but most stuff gets scraped out right in my kitchen, so......

zamboni: Puts me in mind of this askme, where Flood's friend was trying to get rid of 3 lbs of mercury.

Great story, but my god this place can be a gaping pile of ass hole sometimes. I'm pretty glad I didn't see it at the time...
posted by Chuckles at 3:27 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


if you've been paying attention to understanding things around you, you have a pretty powerful foundation, and it's very rare to hit something that is a big unknown.

It's also awesome :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:31 PM on March 31, 2011


THERE IS NO BLUE FOOD!
posted by hippybear at 3:34 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dr. Richard Selzer wrote a hauntingly beautiful short story about this incident. It's called "Luis," and it appears in The Doctor Stories (Amazon, Google Books).

Selzer succeeds where many doctor-writers fail. He recognizes the humanity of both patients and doctors, and he does not refrain from writing about failures on both sides.
posted by charmcityblues at 3:35 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Welcome to the 21st century...and beyond.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:45 PM on March 31, 2011


Blue isn't a natural color? What?

I assume he means it's an unusual colour in nature?


*Looks up at sky*

Hmmmm....
posted by pjern at 3:47 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


When will we learn that we can only be truly safe if we abandon all forms of radioactive technology? Clean coal imaging for all!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:49 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Continuing the derail: of the relatively few blue animals and plants in nature, virtually none are actually blue in the way we'd expect. Reds, yellows, greens etc are due to pigments (mostly proteins, sometimes proteins with metal ions bound to them) in the tissue with the right absorbance properties that e.g. red light bounces off it and other wavelengths are absorbed and either re-emitted as e.g. red light or dumped as heat. In contrast, blue animals (including birds' feathers and baboons' blue bits) generally don't have blue pigments. Instead, they have complex and elegent systems that rely on reflection and diffraction to.dump non-blue light... So unlike any other visible colour on living things, most blues in nature are much closer to the colour in an oil film on water than to the colour in a tube of paint. I don't know why this is. Nature is weird.

Known exceptions include a particular kind of coral, some sort of jellyfish and not a lot else.

posted by metaBugs at 4:01 PM on March 31, 2011 [5 favorites]


*Looks up at sky*

Hmmmm....


Clearly you're not from Seattle.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:12 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm quite sure you kyanophobes are maladaptive. It may have worked out in this case, but I'm quite sure being terrified of unusual blue objects is not a normal or practical fear.
posted by delmoi at 4:21 PM on March 31, 2011


THERE IS NO BLUE FOOD!

Sure there is.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:27 PM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wait, if blue doesn't occur in nature, then what are maxi pads for?
posted by Dr. Eigenvariable at 5:15 PM on March 31, 2011 [16 favorites]


delmoi - if you're refering to me, you should read what I wrote because you seem to be getting it backwards. It's not fear, it's curiosity. If the supernatural presents itself, you investigate it and get to the bottom of things, you don't shrug your shoulders and give it to your kids to play with. You don't eat it.

Judging by the obvious and terrible pitfalls fallen into by less-interested people that I know, it is supremely adaptive to understand the things you interact with. I know people who have lost their livelyhood because they didn't understand the workings of something a lot bigger than they are.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:18 PM on March 31, 2011


Stupid but at least not deliberate.

The USGOV knew that beryllium causes acute lung disease and can kill in 1947. Up to 26,000 workers were exposed to the Cat 1 carcinogen over the next 50 years, when Clinton called for compensation.

The century of the Faustian Bargain presses on.
posted by Twang at 5:36 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Blue/indigo/purple objects are somewhat rare in nature, which is the exact reason why lapis lazuli and the color purple has always historically decorative and prized for their color. The Romans didn't just use purple as a royal color because they simply liked it; it's because Tyrian Purple had to be extracted from sea snails, was very costly, and thus partially operated as a status symbol.
posted by suedehead at 5:46 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even better: The doctors treated the Goiânia patients with a synthetic blue pigment, to treat the illness caused by the manmade blue isotope.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:04 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think situations like the Goiânia accident was a significant motivator for the development of the new ISO 21482 ionizing radiation hazard symbol. The radiation trefoil is basically a meaningless abstract symbol unless you have the cultural or educational background to associate it with its meaning. I have no idea whether the Goiânia source was even labeled with a trefoil, but the new symbol would do a much more effective job of conveying the basic message of "GTFO or this will kill you" even to a person with very little formal education.

Whether it would work across deep time to, as in quadog's link, communicate that message to people 10,000 years from now from a completely alien and unknown cultural context, I have no idea. I suspect not, but I'm not sure there's really anything that would.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 7:18 PM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can guarantee I would have wanted to play with the stuff. I can almost guarantee I'd be one of the guys prying open at least the first containment vessel. But I'd also be the guy who says "we shouldn't open the second one".

When someone said we needed more scientific education, I agreed. Not just to warn people that magic powders can be dangerous, but to also educate people on what radiation is and isn't, and what other things are dangerous and aren't. For christ's sake, we passed around uranium in my 8th grade science class.

Why when I google cesium chloride does it appear to be a white powder?
posted by gjc at 7:25 PM on March 31, 2011


THERE IS NO BLUE FOOD!

Sure there is.


Don't say blueberries, because you know they're purple.
posted by me & my monkey at 7:51 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why when I google cesium chloride does it appear to be a white powder?

Probably you're looking at the non-radioactive isotopes. I don't really know how blue the radioactive form actually is, though.
posted by delmoi at 7:57 PM on March 31, 2011


Indigo Girls fans might appreciate this blue food...
posted by hippybear at 7:58 PM on March 31, 2011


I remember when this story came out. It was pretty horrific.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:07 PM on March 31, 2011




Photos of blue potatoes

posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 10:14 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Amazing story. So poignant the lethal blue crystals looked so pretty.

Fascinating about Prussian Blue being used to treat radioactive contamination.
posted by nickyskye at 10:27 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


If the supernatural presents itself, you investigate it and get to the bottom of things, you don't shrug your shoulders and give it to your kids to play with. You don't eat it.

At that rate we'd never have enjoyed beer, cheese, or bread. Or cannabis or psilocybin, for that matter. A lot of the things we humans thrive on are more than weird enough to seem "supernatural" at first glance -- thus, people who eat unknown things and/or give it to their kids to play with are an evolutionary boon. Chances are pretty good that they'll reproduce before they kill themselves, and even if not, they probably won't manage to kill off the rest of the tribe while they're at it... and just one risky-but-useful discovery (like, say, how to smelt iron) could change the course of the entire species.
posted by vorfeed at 11:40 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why when I google cesium chloride does it appear to be a white powder?

Regular CsCl is white. The radioactive form is only blue because of the blue light emitted as Cherenkov radiation. It's the same light that is seen in a running nuclear reactor.
posted by benzenedream at 12:57 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Sounds like a Spanish-language novel I read called Waslala, in which an event like this is a major plot point. I didn't realize when I read it that it was based on a true event.)
posted by jef at 4:04 AM on April 1, 2011


This was the subject of one of my nuclear physics lectures at university (in the early 1990s) as an example of a well-managed response to a radiation incident. I was getting through the story OK, rather horrified, but when the lecturer put up the photos of the burns people had experienced (page 107 of the IAEA report [pdf]) - and then moved on to the death of the daughter - right there and then I knew that the career I was considering in the nuclear sciences was not for me.

Twenty years later, that lecture and the story still haunt me.
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 5:17 AM on April 1, 2011


benzenedream- I had forgotten about that kind of radiation. Unfortunately, it can't happen in free air.

I just did more googling, and it looks like cesium chloride fluoresces in the presence of radiation. I can see where that would appear to be magic.
posted by gjc at 5:30 AM on April 1, 2011


Yep my bad. Cherenkov only appears in materials in which light is slowed considerably (water, lucite, etc.) and not free air. This straight dope has a concise explanation of the difference between Cherenkov and radioluminescence.
posted by benzenedream at 11:11 AM on April 1, 2011


I'm trying to think how I would react if I came across some really pretty blue powder in a container with next to no frame of reference for what it was. I'd like to think that I wouldn't eat it or rub it on my body because it would probably occur to me that it was an unknown chemical, but I don't think I would think twice about keeping the powder in a container in my house because I thought it was weird/pretty looking. I probably wouldn't think twice about taking a week or two to getting around to figuring out what is was while it sat in my house, eating away my insides. I might run my fingers through it and then probably promptly wash them.

I imagine this level of exposure would probably be enough to kill me or at the very least seriously harm me.

It would never occur to me that I could just "stumble upon" radioactive material. Never. Because I would incorrectly assume that radioactive material is so heavily controlled and regulated, and well just rare, that such a thing would simply not be possible. If I knew it came from a medical facility, it might occur to me it could be radioactive, but that is a huge maybe and really, until reading this, I hadn't realized how much radioactive material is in some medical equipment and how dangerous it is.

These people weren't stupid. They were really unlucky and a bit ignorant.
posted by whoaali at 3:02 PM on April 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


@whoaali When I wrote 'stupid', I was referring to the trained pros (who knew better) who disposed of the equipment, not the people who came across it. If MeFi had 5-minute-oops-insurance, I'd have fixed it when I thought of it (as usual, 45 seconds after posting).

Sure didn't mean to blame the victims.
posted by Twang at 12:46 AM on April 2, 2011


I think your original assertion that the blue glow is Cerenkov radiation is probably right, benzenedream. CsCl has an index of refraction of 1.6, so there's no reason I can see that the C. radiation couldn't be generated within the particles of the powder itself.
posted by jamjam at 1:53 AM on April 2, 2011


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