LOS ALAMOS, N.M. - In 1946, after realizing that beryllium dust caused lung disease in eight of the first atomic bomb workers, the federal government set a standard exposure limit that it thought would protect workers.
Fifty-four years and some 127 cases of chronic beryllium disease later, scientists, engineers, and doctors at Los Alamos National Laboratory are determined to reduce exposures to as close to zero as possible for workers who design beryllium components.
Lab officials, who say they are still learning about beryllium's sinister health threats, showed reporters for the first time - and perhaps, last time - a $14 million beryllium facility designed to keep workers safe.
“This is a state-of-the-art facility,” said Steve Abeln, the lab's beryllium project leader.
Mr. Abeln, who insisted the facility poses no health threat to the public, said the focus of its design was on sophisticated ventilation, filtration, and personnel protection systems that not only meet a tough new government beryllium standard but would expose workers to virtually no beryllium dust.
Inside, beryllium lathe operator Vincent L. Melton demonstrated using a surrogate graphite block on his lathe.
Holding a flow meter that measured between 5,000 and 7,000 cubic feet per minute of air carrying dust away from the machine to a capture filter, he shouted: “That's 10 times more than what's required to run this operation.”
Designed for research and development, the facility exceeds the DOE standards by 10 times, according to lab measurements reported this week by officials.
While the dust can lead to acute beryllium disease, the more common health impact is chronic beryllium disease - in which a victim suffers emphysema-like effects such as breathing difficulty, persistent cough, chest pain, fatigue, and weight loss.
Last month President Clinton signed into law legislation that sets up a $275 million program to compensate the thousands of workers at nuclear weapon facilities exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and toxic substances.
If Congress does not come up with a compensation program by July 31, those made sick by exposure to radiation, beryllium, or silica will be entitled to a payment of $150,000 and medical care.
At least 75 current or former workers at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant near Elmore have contracted beryllium disease, a chronic lung illness caused by the metal's toxic dust. For decades, beryllium has been used in nuclear bombs and other weapons.
Last year, The Blade published a series of articles that exposed a 50-year pattern of misconduct by the U.S. government and the American beryllium industry - wrongdoing that resulted in injury or death for dozens of workers producing the metal. The series also reported how Brush Wellman misled workers about the hazards of beryllium. Brush Wellman has denied The Blade's reports.