From bombs to toys

As Cold War needs waned, beryllium found its way into consumer products

The beryllium industry has marketed its strong, lightweight metal for consumer products ranging from golf clubs to sunglasses to toys. At a toy fair last year, Trudi Handzel of Chicago looks at a display of beryllium copper propellers at the SeaGate Centre in Toledo.
The beryllium industry has marketed its strong, lightweight metal for consumer products ranging from golf clubs to sunglasses to toys. At a toy fair last year, Trudi Handzel of Chicago looks at a display of beryllium copper propellers at the SeaGate Centre in Toledo.

Beryllium has long been used in nuclear weapons, jet fighters, and the space shuttle.

Not exactly household items.

But in recent years the highly toxic metal has been increasingly used in common consumer products, such as computers, televisions, and cell phones.

It's even in golf clubs, sunglasses, pen clips, and dentures.

This has some health officials and scientists concerned. They think using beryllium for products such as golf clubs is an unnecessary risk to the workers who make them and the consumers who use them.

"Those are frivolous uses of a substance as toxic as this," says Dr. Peter Infante, director of standards review for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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Beryllium often causes a lung disease when its dust is inhaled. Scientists say there is no documented case of a consumer getting sick from a finished beryllium product, such as a golf club. But they say there is reason for concern.

Researcher Dr. Donna Cragle says consumers could harm themselves if they sanded or sawed a beryllium golf club, possibly creating toxic dust.

"Sawing it would put some of it into the air, you breathe it in, and there you go," says Dr. Cragle, director of the Center for Epidemiologic Research at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Likewise, sanding or otherwise altering other beryllium products could be risky, researchers say.

And as beryllium use increases, so does the number of manufacturers handling the metal - perhaps without proper safeguards.

In the dental industry, at least two laboratory technicians have contracted beryllium disease, and thousands of others who manufacture crowns, bridges, and dentures are at risk, researchers say. Beryllium is added to these items to improve their durability.

One of the lab workers who got the disease, a 28-year-old woman, didn't personally handle beryllium, but she worked in a room where it was ground, cast, and polished.

Dr. Milton Rossman, a Pennsylvania physician who has seen numerous beryllium victims, says he is unaware of any dental patient becoming ill from crowns, bridges, or dentures that contain beryllium.

Dr. Eula Bingham, director of OSHA under the Carter administration, says beryllium shouldn't be used in the dental industry.

"It's one thing if your country is in a Cold War, and you have to use something. And there may be even some rationale for using beryllium for space exploration." But using beryllium for dental prostheses is a different matter, she says. "There's no excuse for that."

Others are worried about beryllium scrap from consumer products.

"After 20, 50, 100 years you are going to have piles of beryllium all over the place," says Dr. David Groth, a cancer researcher who is retired from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Historically, beryllium has been used mainly in the defense industry. But the end of the Cold War sent beryllium-makers scrambling for other markets.

Beryllium has many commercial uses because it is strong, lightweight, and heat-resistant. When small amounts - typically 2 per cent - are mixed with copper, a remarkably elastic alloy is formed.

Beryllium compounds and alloys can now be found in tiny connectors in computers, relays in cell phones, and air-bag systems in cars.

No one knows how many manufacturers use beryllium, but Brush Wellman Inc., America's leading beryllium producer, reports having thousands of customers, including Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., and Motorola, Inc.

Brush Wellman officials say beryllium is often in parts so tiny that consumers are not going to be tearing them apart and sanding them. And they emphasize that simply touching a piece of beryllium is not dangerous.

But the company says consumers should not do anything to beryllium products that creates dust.

"It's probably a pretty low likelihood that it is going to cause a problem," says Marc Kolanz, Brush's director of environmental health and safety, "but again, the exposure potential is there."

He says a Utah man once told him he was using beryllium-copper to make replica law enforcement badges in his garage. "He was concerned the [Environmental Protection Agency] was going to find him out. My concern was him." The man was using a respirator, Mr. Kolanz recalls, but the wrong kind.

Brush generally doesn't make finished beryllium products, but it supplies customers with the rods, tubes, and wire from which many beryllium products are made. Brush says it warns its customers about the hazards of beryllium, but after that, it is up to them to pass the warnings on to consumers.

One product that has raised concerns: golf clubs. Small amounts of beryllium are mixed with nickel or copper to make the heads of putters and wedges.

"The putters are all over the place," says Brush spokesman Timothy Reid, who recently left the firm.

Many professionals have used beryllium clubs, he says, including European star Bernhard Langer.

Karsten Manufacturing Corp., the parent company of Ping, a leading producer of golf equipment, says it has made beryllium clubs for years, has known about the hazards, and has never had a worker contract the disease.

"We are very, very careful to make sure our worker safety is first and foremost," says Rawleigh Grove, attorney for the Phoenix-based corporation.

He says his firm does not put warning labels on the clubs and has never had a consumer health complaint.

In Formula One auto racing, beryllium is used in the brakes to allow for quicker stops. And the metal has been used in racing bike frames. Bicycling magazine called a $25,000 prototype a "weightless wonder" and said beryllium, compared to other metals, seemed "positively unearthly."

Other commercial uses:

  • Metal artists work with beryllium-copper, which has a golden luster.
  • Beryllium is in propellers on motorized toy boats. A recent model show at Toledo's SeaGate Centre was selling such items.
  • Beryllium sunglasses by Fila USA, Inc., a sporting goods and apparel firm, are advertised on the Internet.

Gary Renwand, a former Brush Wellman worker who contracted the disease at the company's plant near Elmore, O., says he doesn't understand why beryllium is used in so many products.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't have advances," the 61-year-old from Oak Harbor says, "but let's advance with the right care for people."