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Beryllium Disease

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search 6,500 pages of Beryllium documents (be sure to select the Beryllium Collection)

Background

  • Beryllium is a miracle metal, lighter than aluminum yet stiffer than steel, making it perfect for many military applications. Since the end of the Cold War, decline in military demand for beryllium has led Brush and its customers to ramp up commercial applications of the metal. Beryllium is also used in such varied manufactured goods as electronics, automobiles, telecommunications, x-ray machines, and dental fixtures.
  • Brush Wellman began researching beryllium in 1921, opened its first commercial facility to produce the metal in 1931 and continues to operate to this day. The primary consumer of beryllium - it was the top consumer until a recent surge in commercial uses - has been the U.S. government, which first used the metal to build better atomic weapons. Workers were not told about the dangers of beryllium dust, nor were they aware that the government and industry knew of workers dying from on the job exposures. Over 40 cases of chronic beryllium disease, including seven deaths, and about 500 cases of acute disease, including nearly a dozen deaths, had been reported in the US by September 1947. (Read the document)
  • In 1948, one of Brush's beryllium plants was destroyed in a fire, causing the company to question whether it wanted to continue to process the metal because profitability was limited and, at the time, competition was fierce. (Read the document) Perhaps more discouraging for the industry was the news of more cases of beryllium disease, including cases among residents living near the beryllium plants, which created new anxiety for producers. (Read the document)
  • The Atomic Energy Commission, which was the largest consumer of beryllium at the time, worked out a deal with Brush, agreeing to contract with the company to build and operate a government-owned beryllium plant. The AEC also contracted with the Beryllium Corporation of America (Berylco), Brush's main competitor, and those two companies promised to provide for all of the government's beryllium needs.
  • While the contract included a clause limiting airborne levels of beryllium to a maximum of 2.0 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air (ug/m3), this standard was never enforced by the AEC. Brush and the Atomic Energy Commission were aware that even the 2.0 ug/m3 standard was not necessarily safe.

    "It is believed that the two microgram figure has not been proven with any degree of technical rigidity to be an absolute safe maximum concentration." (Read the March, 1951 document)

  • Despite this knowledge, neither Brush nor the AEC ever enforced the questionable 2.0 ug/m3 standard. (Read the document)
  • When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposed a tightening of the standard for airborne beryllium concentrations in the 1970s, Brush Wellman went on the offensive. Brush urged the Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Defense (DOD) to drop the proposed OSHA standard, threatening to quit the business if the tighter standard was promulgated. The complaints compelled the Secretary of Energy to write to the Secretary of Labor declaring that the proposed regulations would threaten national security. He insisted that beryllium was vital to the development of nuclear weapons and that its continued production could not be compromised. The Secretary of Labor agreed, writing in his response that "the Department [of Labor] has no intention of significantly or adversely affecting key national defense programs." (Read the documents: 1, 2)
  • Brush's lobbying efforts, and the government's complicity, effectively guaranteed that more workers would contract the deadly disease. Indeed, that's exactly what happened. Independent researchers and scientists continued to report on the dangers of beryllium disease and the threat to workers posed by the lax standards.
  • In 1987, Brush set out to "combat" the two decades of "very damaging" literature documenting the dangers of beryllium disease. Brush's efforts to improve the image of beryllium included the development of several "medical papers," including a paper about the development of chronic beryllium disease. (Read the document)
  • The paper's significance was noted:

    "This information is of great importance to beryllium users in view of three fairly recent publications incorrectly claiming the occurrence of disease with exposures below 2 ug/m3. The argument, if ever accepted in court, would have a severe adverse effect on Brush. The flaws in these papers are quite obvious and should be included in the discussion." (Read the document)

  • The same document also details Brush's efforts to create its own "textbook on beryllium health and safety." As the document describes, Brush would fund and complete the textbook project, but they would use a familiar industry technique in an attempt to gain credibility for the book - they would pay a non-profit third party to publish it- thereby hoping "to be fully accepted and credible." (Read the document)
  • The 2.0 ug/m3 standard is still the law for workplace exposures [See generally 29 C.F.R. 1910.1000 (2001)], even though many scientists dispute the safety of this standard. Furthermore, enforcement of the standard remains lax. As for those who contract beryllium disease, it appears that about a third die from it, another third are disabled, and the rest appear to live relatively healthy lives. Doctors still aren't sure exactly how to explain the different reactions or why some are more susceptible to the disease than others. For victims of the disease, the symptoms can be treated with powerful steroids, although beryllium disease itself remains incurable to this day. (Read the article)

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last updated: march.27.2009

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