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Published: Thursday, 12/27/2012

DEADLY ALLIANCE: WEAPONS OVER WORKERS

You too may be at risk of developing beryllium disease

BY SAM ROE
BLADE SENIOR WRITER
A researcher checks the seat of a car belonging to a worker at an Alabama machine shop. A study concluded that workers at the shop were contaminating their cars with beryllium dust. A researcher checks the seat of a car belonging to a worker at an Alabama machine shop. A study concluded that workers at the shop were contaminating their cars with beryllium dust.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NIOSH Enlarge

You don't have to be a beryllium worker to be at risk for beryllium disease.

If you've ever lived near a beryllium plant, you may be at risk. If you've ever toured a beryllium facility, you may be at risk.

And if you've ever bought a used car from a beryllium worker, you may be at risk.

These risks may be extremely low, but they do exist, health officials say.

Overall, beryllium disease is a rare illness, almost exclusively affecting workers in factories and metal shops that produce or machine the material. But anyone is at risk if they have ever been exposed to beryllium dust.

Handling a finished beryllium product is not risky -- unless you cut, sand, or otherwise alter it, creating dust.

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It is unknown how much beryllium dust a person must breathe in to contract this often-fatal lung illness or how long a person must be exposed. Some people have become sick with seemingly insignificant exposures.

But there is no known case of someone developing the disease after being exposed for only a few hours.

Nor is there a documented case of someone getting it from touring a beryllium factory or driving a car contaminated with dust from a worker's clothing.

Still, health officials say citizens should be aware of all potential risks. If not, people may develop the disease and never make the connection between their illnesses and beryllium.

"If somebody developed lung disease and had never worked in a setting in which they were likely to have been exposed to beryllium, it would be very unusual for a physician to pursue the question of whether they had beryllium disease," says Dr. Kathleen Kreiss, a beryllium researcher at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

And early detection is important because beryllium disease, though not curable, is treatable. Medication can extend the lives of victims for years.

Other than current and former beryllium workers, here are those who may be at risk:

Contractors

At least one contractor -- an electrician from Tucson, Ariz. -- has been diagnosed with beryllium disease after working in a beryllium plant.

George Faccio, 64, was in and out of the Brush Wellman Inc. plant in Tucson from 1983 to 1985. "His exposure to beryllium was really just walking around the plant, breathing the air," says his attorney, James Heckbert.

Mr. Faccio was diagnosed with the disease in 1994 after complaining of shortness of breath and fatigue, Mr. Heckbert says. The electrician is suing Brush Wellman, saying it did not warn him of the dangers.

Brush says it thoroughly warns contractors.

Residents

In the 1940s and 1950s, at least 41 residents living near beryllium plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania developed the disease through air pollution. Several victims died.

Citizens within five miles of the Reading, Pa., plant got the disease; residents within three-quarters of a mile of the Lorain, O., plant got sick.

There have been no documented air pollution cases since the 1950s, and Brush Wellman says residents near its plants are not at risk.

But records from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency show that the amount of beryllium dust near Brush's main plant outside Elmore, O., has been periodically over the U.S. safety limit.

No studies have been done to determine whether residents in this rural area have been affected. Brush says it knows of no such complaints.

People taking tours

Some health officials advise against taking tours of beryllium plants.

But Brush continues to give tours of its Elmore plant. Among those who have taken them: spouses of beryllium workers, Toledo congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, and news reporters.

When Brush held an open house last October, several members of the environmental group Ohio Citizen Action protested in front of the plant. "We're not convinced the inside of that plant is safe," says Sarah Ogdahl, the group's Toledo director.

Brush officials say it is highly unlikely anyone has been harmed by the tours. Operations are shut during the tours, and high-risk areas are off-limits.

But Brush acknowledges there is a risk of exposure. When asked whether someone could get beryllium disease by touring its plant, Brush administrator Marc Kolanz says: "We can only tell you what we know: In past history, we don't know of any cases that have originated from a tour at the plant."

Relatives

About two dozen people have contracted the disease from dust carried into their homes by beryllium workers.

Many victims have been women who shook out and washed their husbands' contaminated clothing.

These illnesses were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s, when beryllium plants did not have many of today's safeguards, such as showers and a change of clothes.

Since then, there has been only one known case of a person contracting beryllium disease outside the workplace. Carol Mason, a 64-year-old from Wood County, was diagnosed with the disease in 1990.

Her husband worked at the Elmore plant, but her exposure to beryllium was limited: She handled his work clothes twice, took two tours of the plant, and spent a week brushing metallic flakes from her husband's face and scalp after a work accident.

In 1997, a government study found that workers at an Alabama machine shop were leaving work with beryllium dust on their hands and clothes, spreading it to their cars and, presumably, their homes.

The workers' relatives have not been tested for early indications of the disease. If they were, a few cases might be found, says the study's author, Wayne Sanderson of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Acquaintances 

Mr. Sanderson says if you buy a used car from a beryllium worker, you should have it cleaned inside before you drive it. That's because his study found that workers at the Alabama machine shop were tracking beryllium dust into their cars.

"There were some workers that were significantly contaminating their vehicles," he says.

But the health risk "is probably not tremendous," he says, and there have been no illnesses reported from such exposures.

And Mr. Sanderson says that although workers were found to have beryllium dust on them, it is not dangerous to shake hands with them or sit next to them on the bus. "It's really highly unlikely that the short-term exposure you would get in those sort of situations would lead to chronic beryllium disease."



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