Some construction workers at nuclear weapons facilities operated by the U.S.Department of Energy show symptoms of a chronic lung disease caused by exposure to beryllium, despite the fact that their exposure levels were relatively low.
That finding, released recently by the the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) established disease rates for these workers.
“Much is already known about the risks of acute exposure to beryllium dust; researchers have extensively documented the skin and lung disorders exhibited by workers who mine, smelt or otherwise encounter high exposures to the metal,” according to Beryllium Disease Among Construction Trade Workers at Department of Energy Nuclear Sites.
Using data on 14,000 workers from a medical surveillance program, the researchers found beryllium sensitivity in 189, or 1.4% of them. Twenty-eight of these had sufficient evidence of Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD) -- a chronic lung disease -- to qualify them for compensation from the federal government under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA).
Differences among trades
Workers in certain trades were found to have elevated rates of beryllium sensitivity: 2% or more of the boilermakers, roofers, and sheet metal workers tested positive for beryllium sensitivity.
Skin contact v. inhalation
Fifteen percent (15%) of all the beryllium-sensitized workers were found to have CBD. This proportion of CBD diagnosed among sensitized workers is lower than what has been reported in other studies. The authors hypothesize that these construction workers may have had significant exposure to beryllium through skin contact rather than through inhalation, and that sensitization through skin contact may be less likely to result in chronic lung disease than sensitization through inhalation.
The researchers were: Laura Welch, MD, Knut Ringen, DrPH, John Dement, PhD, Eula Bingham, PhD, Patricia Quinn, BA, Janet Shorter, BA, and Miles Fisher, BA. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, October 2013.
Visit the CPWR Key Findings for information on additional studies.