Guarapari: Brazil’s Radioactive Beaches

When most people think of the world’s most famous radioactive spaces, they generally think of disaster zones like the area surrounding the doomed Chernobyl power plant in Pripyat. The word radioactive brings to mind a man-made catastrophe brought on by an accident at a nuclear power plant, or a top secret nuclear weapons test on a remote island in the Pacific. Radioactivity isn’t always the result of human intervention. Certain landscapes—such as the Brazilian town of Guarapari’s beaches—are naturally radioactive due to the presence of a mineral called monazite.

In the 1880s, Austrian inventor Carl Auer von Welsbach developed a type of light called a gas mantle. In 1890, Carl Auer von Welsbach found that his mantle could produce a more vibrant white light if he used a radioactive element called thorium. Carl Auer von Welsbach determined that some reddish brown sand on a ship that had traveled from Brazil contained monazite, which was a rich source of thorium. Carl Auer von Welsbach hired a crew of workers to extract mounds of monazite from Guarapari’s beaches.

Harvesting sand from the beaches in 1910

Harvesting sand from the beaches in 1910. Photo: bionerd23/Flickr

Workers packing monazite sand in sacks.

Workers packing monazite sand in sacks. Photo: bionerd23/Flickr

Workers processing monazite sand

Workers processing monazite sand. Photo: bionerd23/Flickr

In the 1970s, physician Silva Mello falsely stated that the radioactive sands of Guarapari had curative properties. Mellow wrote a book that claimed a combination of radioactive sand and the sun’s UV rays could cure a variety of ailments including arthritis and cancer. Visitors flocked to Guarapari and caked themselves with sand, hoping for a miracle cure for whatever ailed them. Thanks to Dr. Mello’s book, the beaches of Guarapari attracted droves of health-conscious people. Nuclear energy experts in Brazil were utterly horrified by Dr. Mello’s recommendations. The radioactive sands of Guarapari give off the same amount of radiation as a chest x-ray. Constant exposure to such high levels of radiation is incredibly damaging the human body. Instead of curing cancer, prolonged exposure to Guarapari’s radioactive sands can cause it.

A vintage photograph showing a full beach in Guarapari

A vintage photograph showing a full beach in Guarapari. Photo: bionerd23/Flickr

Despite the potential health risks, the beaches of Guarapari remain a popular tourist destination. A day or two spent on Guarapari’s radioactive coast is relatively harmless. Nuclear scientists do not recommend repeat exposure. There has been an effort to relocate Guarapari’s monazite rich radioactive sand and replace it with sand that doesn’t produce excessive radiation. Brazilian authorities have yet to relocate the radioactive sands of Guarapari.

Exposure to background radiation is a natural part of life. Scientists suggest limiting exposure to higher levels of radiation whenever possible. A day spent lounging on the shores of the beaches of Guarapari is probably equivalent to a day spent at the doctor or dentist’s office doing a round of diagnostic tests. A day or two sunbathing on radioactive sand probably won’t damage your cells too much. Burying yourself in radioactive monazite sand is certainly ill-advised. There is a good reason that Dr. Silva Mello is an obscure figure, and his book singing the praises of natural radiation is currently out of print. The same brave souls who tour the radioactive ruins of Pripyat can spend a week relaxing in a beach bungalow on the shores of Guarapari.

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