Beryllium is a metal; it’s the fourth element in the Periodic Table of Elements. Beryllium is found in mineral rocks, coal, soil, and volcanic dust. Beryllium is extremely strong and lightweight; it is much stronger than steel, but lighter than aluminum. These and other properties make beryllium a very useful product in missiles, nuclear weapons, aircraft parts, and ceramics.
Unfortunately, beryllium is extremely toxic to the lungs of up to 25% of the population. In susceptible individuals, a few particles of beryllium inhaled into the lungs can cause a chronic, fatal lung disease once known as berylliosis, now called Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD).
The toxicity of beryllium is like that of no other substance known to mankind. Most toxic chemicals behave in a dose-response fashion; i.e., their toxic effects increase with dose. However, the ability of beryllium to cause CBD does not appear to depend on dose or cumulative exposure. Rather, beryllium causes an immunological reaction in susceptible individuals. Thus, beryllium is a selective toxin – its toxic effects occur in as much as 25% of exposed individuals. In these susceptible individuals, beryllium destroys lung tissue, ultimately resulting in death.
Brush Wellman, Inc., has been the primary domestic manufacturer of beryllium products for more than 50 years. The first cases of Chronic Beryllium Disease to capture the public’s attention did not occur in beryllium workers; they occurred in residents of the community of Lorain, Ohio, where Brush Wellman had a beryllium manufacturing plant. In the late 1940s a dozen cases of CBD were reported among residents living within a mile of Brush Wellman’s Lorain, Ohio Plant. Merril Eisenbud, a scientist with the Department of Energy, conducted a study at the time and determined that the residents of Lorain, Ohio were being exposed to microscopic amounts of beryllium in the ambient air of the community due to emissions from the Lorain, Ohio Plant – far less than workers.
Exposed employees of Brush Wellman and other companies processing and using beryllium have not escaped the scourge of CBD. A dozen secretaries at Brush Wellman plants who never worked with beryllium got the disease, just by breathing air in the plant. Wives of beryllium workers have gotten the disease by washing their husbands’ work clothes, and some children of beryllium workers got the disease, presumably from parental exposure.
The occupational standard for exposure to beryllium was established about 50 years ago at 2 µg/m3 (2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air). This is about the equivalent of a piece of beryllium the size of a pencil point ground up and dispersed into a box the size of a football field that is 10 feet high. The standard was adopted without any empirical data showing that it would protect exposed workers from developing CBD. Rather, the standard was adopted because it was the lowest level that it was thought industry could achieve on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, workers in plants of Brush Wellman and its customers have developed CBD despite attempts to comply with the standard, and some workers who have not been exposed to beryllium in excess of the occupational standard have nevertheless gotten the dreadful disease.