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OSHA inspectors show signs of beryllium health problems

January 21, 2005
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OSHA, long criticized for downplaying the dangers of beryllium, has discovered that several of its employees have been affected by exposure to the deadly metal, reports the Chicago Tribune.

The Tribune has learned that ongoing medical testing shows that at least three OSHA workers have developed blood abnormalities linked to beryllium exposure — the first such cases at the agency. The workers are believed to have been exposed while conducting safety inspections in industries using beryllium, a lightweight metal whose dust can cause an often-fatal lung disease.

Beryllium is used in a variety of industries to help make products ranging from missile components to laptop computers to golf clubs.

OSHA estimates that 1,000 inspectors — three-fourths of its force — have conducted inspections in industries handling the metal.

People who have blood abnormalities don't necessarily have beryllium disease; the abnormalities mean the body's immune system has reacted to beryllium exposure. Further tests, such as a lung biopsy, are needed to confirm illness. Experts estimate about half the people with blood abnormalities will develop the disease.

OSHA officials said until testing is complete, they would not comment on results nor confirm whether any employees have blood abnormalities. But sources said at least three do.

OSHA has been attacked for years for being slow to address the dangers of beryllium, one of the most potentially toxic materials handled in the workplace. Some researchers argue OSHA's worker-exposure limit is inadequate; others have faulted the agency for delays in offering blood tests to its inspectors.

The private beryllium industry and some U.S. military facilities have been testing their workers since the 1990s, often discovering cases of beryllium disease where there was thought to be none.

Dr. Adam Finkel, who blew the whistle on OSHA's beryllium problem while working at the agency, said OSHA officials knew inspectors were exposed to high levels of beryllium dust and OSHA should have offered testing sooner. "They let them twist in the wind for many years," said Finkel, who now teaches health policy at Princeton University.

Finkel, who remains on OSHA's payroll until next year as part of the whistle-blower settlement, emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not the agency.

To date, OSHA has tested 265 current employees. The agency would not comment on whether it would expand testing to include former inspectors.

OSHA officials have said testing was not done years ago because it was not a priority. In an interview with the Tribune last year, Davis Layne, an OSHA deputy assistant secretary who oversaw the testing, said he would not be tested himself even though he had spent time inside a facility that handled beryllium.

Beryllium experts urge that everyone exposed be tested. There is no cure for beryllium disease, but early detection can aid treatment. Symptoms include shortness of breath and fatigue, and some people eventually cannot breathe without the aid of an oxygen tank.

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