Beryllium, a lightweight, strong and highly toxic metal used in many industrial applications, is the subject of a new NIOSH alert. Used in springs, electrical contacts, aircraft, spacecraft, nuclear weapons and nuclear reactor fuel cladding, beryllium can affect the immune system (a condition called beryllium sensitization) and cause chronic beryllium disease (CBD), a debilitating and often fatal lung disease.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences says that although the number of CBD cases is currently small, the Department of Energy expects an increase in worker exposure to beryllium as former nuclear weapons production facilities are decommissioned.

The NIOSH alert recommends that employers know the beryllium content of materials in their workplace and substitute less hazardous materials whenever possible. Engineering controls should be used to keep airborne concentrations as low as possible, since a safe exposure limit for beryllium has not been determined.

NIOSH also advises workers to use respiratory protection when exposure is a possibility, avoid contact with beryllium-containing dusts and solutions on the skin, and keep work surfaces and work areas clean.

Participation in skin protection programs (which may include wearing gloves, long sleeves and long pants and showering at the end of the workday) will also help reduce exposure. Food, drinks, tobacco products, or cosmetics should not be stored or consumed in beryllium work areas.

The NIOSH beryllium alert is available at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2011-107/pdfs/2011-107.pdf