Sam Roe, a senior writer for the Toledo Blade newspaper, triggered new concerns over beryllium earlier this year when he wrote the series entitled, "Deadly Alliance: How the Government and Industry Chose Weapons Over Workers." Other news outlets, particularly in communities where beryllium is mined, manufactured or used, have picked up on Roe's 22-month investigative reporting work.
The thesis behind Roe's series of articles is that the U.S. government has stonewalled greater hazard controls for beryllium and pressured industry and researchers to downplay health risks. Why? The government allegedly fears more controls might slow beryllium supplies for military weapons. Responding to these allegations, the General Accounting Office decided this past June to formally investigate the government's role in controlling, or not controlling, health hazards posed by beryllium.
What is it?Beryllium is indeed a fascinating material. Its family tree (crystalline form) includes valued gems such as blue-green aquamarine and green emerald. Its metallic proprieties are also unique and valuable. The metal is only one-third as heavy as aluminum but six times stiffer than steel. Beryllium has a high melting temperature (1285Â° C) and high heat-absorption capacity. One pound of beryllium will absorb as much heat as five pounds of copper.
Beryllium is nonmagnetic, has good dimensional stability (holds its shape), has good corrosion resistance, can be machined to close tolerances, has a high permeability to x-rays, and has the lowest thermal neutron absorption cross-section of any metal. This latter property makes the material especially suited for use in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons components.
It's now generally known that beryllium is crucial (there is no suitable substitute) for making powerful nuclear weapons. In 1995, U.S. News & World Report and CBS's 60 Minutes conducted a five-month investigation that provided proof that Russian organized crime was involved in smuggling beryllium to countries such as Korea and India.
The details of this investigation can be viewed on the Internet at www.alternatives.com/crime/ berryl.html. Coincidentally, the world learned this year that India has nuclear weapons. Was there a beryllium connection?
Beryllium hazardsThe good properties of beryllium are noted above. One bad property is that the metal is brittle. Small particles, which can be inhaled, can chip off fairly easily. This makes beryllium a greater exposure hazard than other toxic metals.
Beryllium is very toxic. The current OSHA 8-hour time-weighted average permissible exposure limit is 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air. As Roe describes it, "this level is equivalent to a pencil tip in a box six feet high and the size of a football field." OSHA's PEL for beryllium is the same limit the Atomic Energy Commission established for the metal back in 1949.
It's not surprising to find new research showing that 50-year-old exposure limits for beryllium may be too high. Studies suggest that approximately one to three percent of all people exposed to beryllium develop chronic beryllium disease (CBD), an irreversible and sometimes fatal scarring of the lungs. Incidence rates among employees who machine beryllium rise as high as 10 to 14 percent.
The latency period for CBD is generally 10 to 15 years, but it may take as long as 30 years from time of exposure to development of disease. Some people also experience sensitivities to very small amounts of beryllium. Don't be surprised if a debate heats up over whether any exposure to the material is safe.
Be proactiveWe've seen the combination of investigative reporting and scientific research spark emotional and political reactions to substances in the past, and it might happen again with beryllium. Greater controls could be mandated eventually, and may be prudent even without government action. Exposure fears could boil over in some workplaces. It's best to learn about any beryllium exposures at your workplace now, just in case someone asks you later "what did you know?"
(Many Internet sites relating to beryllium have been updated recently. Greater precautions for working with the material are being recommended. Brush Wellman, a major manufacturer of beryllium, lists on its site independent consulting industrial hygienists with experience in sampling and controlling exposures to beryllium. I've never seen this level of "specialized" IH work for a chemical without a substance-specific OSHA standard.)
Chances are your employees are not building nuclear weapons using beryllium. But beryllium alloys are found in growing numbers of industrial products, such as springs, switches, relays, telecommunication equipment, certain molds and casts, and non-sparking tools. Some golf clubs and bicycle frames are made of beryllium alloys. Beryllium metal and compounds may also be found in other products such as some ceramics and electrical equipment. Remember, the material may be present in very small or trace quantities, but any amount should still be identified.
If amounts are present in your workplace, what are employee exposure levels? Even if the product is intact and not disturbed, an air sample should be collected to prove that safe (non-detectable) exposure levels exist. This may seem like an unnecessary precaution, but how else can proof of safe exposure be clearly demonstrated?
By Dan Markiewicz, MS, CIH, CSP, CHMM. Dan is an independent environmental health and safety consultant. He can be reached at (419) 382-0132 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
- One-third as heavy as aluminum but six times stiffer than steel
- Possesses a high melting temperature (1285o C) and high heat-absorption capacity
- Lowest thermal neutron absorption cross-section of any metal
- Especially suited for use in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons components
- Material is found in springs, switches, relays, telecommunication equipment, certain molds and casts, and non-sparking tools
- some golf clubs and bicycle frames are made of beryllium alloys
- Small particles, which can be inhaled, can chip off fairly easily
- Material is very toxic
- Current OSHA 8-hour time-weighted average permissible exposure limit is 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air