The government should immediately lower workers' exposure to beryllium, Public Citizen and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union (PACE) said yesterday in a petition filed with OSHA because the metal, commonly used in the manufacture of sporting goods, dental equipment and airplane parts, is directly linked to a fatal lung disease.
In their petition, Public Citizen and PACE asked OSHA Administrator John Henshaw to reduce the "permissible exposure limit" (PEL) for beryllium and beryllium compounds from the current standard of 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) to 0.2 ug/m3.
The current exposure limit is more than five decades old, and while OSHA has admitted that it is so high as to endanger workers, the agency has not acted to lower it, said Public Citizen. OSHA's previous administrator, Charles Jeffress, said in 1999 that the "permissible exposure limits for beryllium in the workplace now appear to be too high to prevent chronic beryllium disease."
In addition to lowering the PEL, Public Citizen is asking for annual blood testing of all workers exposed to beryllium so that they can be removed from further exposure if necessary.
One recent study showed that almost 10 percent of workers had developed an allergic-like reaction to beryllium (called "sensitization") and 5 to 6 percent had chronic lung disease, both at exposures just 15 percent of the current OSHA standard. Several workers developed chronic disease within three months of employment, according to Public Citizen.
"OSHA's failure to adopt a standard that will protect workers from unnecessary beryllium exposure is unconscionable," said Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group and a co-signer of Public Citizen's petition. "Every day the agency ignores this issue, tens of thousands of workers are needlessly exposed to this life-threatening hazard."
Beryllium is used by a variety of industries, most commonly as an alloy with other metals.
Adding 2 percent beryllium to copper increases the strength of the alloy sixfold. The metal also is extremely light and corrosion-resistant. Potentially hazardous exposure to beryllium can occur even when workers manufacturing products containing beryllium or beryllium compounds inhale only minuscule amounts of beryllium fumes or dust.
Following exposure, some workers become sensitized, which can be detected in a blood test. Each year 10 to 19 percent of sensitized people develop a lung condition known as chronic beryllium disease (CBD). The symptoms include weakness, fatigue, and respiratory and heart failure. As many as 30 percent of sensitized workers die from CBD or its complications. In addition, a recent study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine confirmed the connection between beryllium exposure and lung cancer.
Within the U.S. government, there is precedent for lowering beryllium concentrations, said Public Citizen.
In January 2000, the Department of Energy (DOE) required the agency and its contractors to establish programs that reduce beryllium exposure to the level Public Citizen is asking for because workers had developed CBD at levels less than the OSHA standard.
"How ironic that OSHA, whose sole purpose is to protect the health of workers, has dropped the ball on the beryllium standard, while the DOE does a better job of protecting its workers from this dangerous exposure," said Lurie.
The current beryllium standard was adopted in 1949 by the Atomic Energy Commission to prevent a more severe disease caused by acute beryllium exposure, and that standard was adopted for all workers in 1970 with the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Despite overwhelming evidence that increased protections against beryllium exposure are necessary, OSHA has failed to upgrade its standard.
A 1977 report by a research arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that OSHA reduce the exposure rate for beryllium to 0.5 ug/m3, and the industrial hygienists' national association recommended a level of 0.2 ug/m3 in 1998, OSHA has not yet issued a new standard, despite numerous promises to do so.
"The current beryllium standard is ridiculously outdated and has done little to prevent CBD," said Dave Ortlieb, director of PACE's Health and Safety Department. "American workers should not have to spend another day worrying whether they will contract a fatal disease that the government should be preventing."
Added Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, 'The time for excuses is over. OSHA has failed in the past eight years to do its job of protecting American workers from occupational hazards. The dangers represented by beryllium give the agency a chance to chart a new course."
Edited by Virginia Foran