Research Focuses on Beryllium Disease Prevention

New scientific studies may help lead to the elimination of chronic beryllium disease, a potentially debilitating and sometimes fatal condition associated with exposure to beryllium in some workplaces.

Researchers are working to reduce concerns of a decades-long workplace health problem.

New scientific studies conducted by researchers from Brush Wellman Inc., the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Department of Energy and others may help lead to the elimination of chronic beryllium disease (CBD).

Researchers presented new scientific data Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C., at a national symposium Brush Wellman co-sponsored with the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). Brush Wellman is the world's only fully integrated producer of beryllium, beryllium alloys and beryllium ceramics.

CBD is a potentially debilitating and sometimes fatal condition associated with exposure to beryllium, an extremely toxic metallic element that has major applications in nuclear reactors, automobiles, computers, business machines and aerospace products. Air pollution by dust containing beryllium may occur in or near factories where it is produced or used.

"The more data we can share with those who work on this problem every day, the closer we come to understanding the way beryllium enters our bodies and sets off the reactions that lead to CBD," said Hugh D. Hanes, the company's vice president of government affairs. "Once we understand that mechanism, we'll be able to focus on the measures that will prevent it from happening in the future."

Researchers presented new evidence that CBD may be linked more closely to beryllium particle size and, possibly, chemical form than to total beryllium exposure. Government standards set permissible exposure levels at 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air without any reference to beryllium particle size or chemical form. Data presented are based on studies being conducted under a research partnership between Brush Wellman and NIOSH at the company's Elmore, Ohio, and Tucson, Ariz., plants.

CBD was first identified in the 1940s. An apparent decrease in CBD in the early 1980s led experts to predict that the disease had been eradicated, Hanes said. A few years later, a blood test was perfected that helped identify people who had become sensitized to beryllium, a key to developing the disease. The medical profession started using the blood test when unexplainable clinical cases of beryllium sensitization started appearing.

Also in the mid-1980s, a Denver hospital began reporting that Department of Energy (DOE) workers showed sensitivity to the disease. Beryllium exposure, though, did not gather much attention until July 1999 when DOE abandoned its long-standing opposition to most worker health claims and announced legislation that would compensate its contract employees who are ill from work they did constructing nuclear weapons.

Adding to CBD's rebound in the 1980s, Hanes said, was the development of a flexible bronchoscope, which allows for a more thorough examination of lung cells. By the early 1990s, Brush Wellman began surveillance of workers in beryllium manufacturing after the company began seeing cases that were hard to explain.

"We started finding more cases, largely of people who were sensitized or had lung sensitivity, but no evidence of the disease," he said. "Unfortunately, a few of those people have progressed."

While recent numbers are not available, the 60-year-old industry has seen about 1,300 cases of CBD. Hanes estimates that about 30,000 workers are potentially exposed.

Brush Wellman has been working independently and with various government agencies to refine the process used to identify the disease, develop ways to identify it earlier, implement workplace standards that better protect employees from exposure and conduct research to understand more fully the factors that trigger CBD.

Last year, the company introduced a new level of workplace safety standards for its employees in Tucson after blood testing there indicated that precautions already in place had failed to prevent beryllium sensitization and eliminate CBD. Similar measures were implemented this June at the company's Elmore facility following additional testing. In September, the company announced expanded health screening for employees to better identify and eliminate potential exposure routes within the company's production facilities.

Hanes: Standard Protects Workers If Followed Correctly

The ACGIH and Brush Wellman symposium was held at about the same time that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a beryllium exposure alert. OSHA's alert was prompted by new research showing that exposure limits may not protect workers from contracting CBD (see Sept. 28 news item on our Web site).

Several studies have indicated that, if the standard is adhered to and there are proper industrial hygiene practices in place, the standard appears to provide protection, at least with some types of beryllium. The crux of OSHA's alert is that additional protective measures should be taken.

"The problem is that even today, as careful as we are we are never capable of achieving the standard 100 percent of the time in all of our operations," Hanes said. "We achieve it a high percentage of the time. So we take additional protective measures."

Researchers in the Brush Wellman study reported on employee health screening results from the company's mining and beryllium extraction facility in Delta, Utah, which has been in operation for 30 years. No worker who has worked exclusively in Delta has developed CBD. Similar results have been reported at the Cardiff, Wales, beryllium-manufacturing site operated by the British government for more than 35 years.

The Cardiff facility achieved compliance with the OSHA beryllium standard 98 percent of the time, followed strict workplace procedures and has had no cases of clinical CBD among its work force. Both sets of data provide additional insight as to how the beryllium exposure standard acts to protect worker health and may help identify different exposure risks presented by various forms of beryllium.

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