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Report: Workers often not warned of beryllium dangers

CHICAGO - Companies whose workers handle the toxic metal beryllium often fail to warn workers about the hazards of exposure to the metal, putting them at risk of a potentially fatal lung disease, the Chicago Tribune reported today.

Beryllium disease once was associated primarily with the defense industry, where the metal was used in nuclear weapons, but it is increasingly common among workers in private and consumer industries, the Tribune reported.

In 1999, The Blade documented a 50-year pattern of misconduct by the federal government and the beryllium industry. Among the findings: Government and industry officials knowingly allowed workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust. The series sparked major safety reforms.

About 1,200 people nationwide have contracted beryllium disease, a fatal lung ailment, since the 1940s, including at least 75 present or former workers at the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore.

The disease, caused when the metal's dust slowly damages the lungs of people who have been exposed, is rare, incurable, and often fatal.

The number of beryllium disease cases among workers in private industries has increased in the past few years, according to the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, a leading respiratory disease hospital that diagnoses more beryllium illness than any other health care facility.

Since 1985, the hospital has diagnosed 100 cases of beryllium poisoning among workers outside the defense industry and major beryllium production plants, said Dr. Lee Newman, a scientist at the hospital.

Dr. Newman called that figure the “tip of the iceberg,” saying the disease often goes undetected.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires workplace warnings on beryllium and limits on exposure to its dust.

But the Chicago Tribune, citing government, court, and industry documents, said companies often do not follow those rules and the government does not adequately enforce the laws.

Experts say the rise in reported cases of beryllium disease could be attributed to new tests to diagnose the disease and more frequent use of the metal in industries that might not be fully aware of its risks.

Beryllium is used in the electronics, recycling, machining, and dental industries because it is lightweight but extremely strong.

As The Blade reported, the government had for decades risked the lives of weapon-plant workers by allowing them to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium.

The Chicago Tribune reported that many companies in other industries do not take even basic precautions, such as air monitoring, to protect workers. The newspaper said a check of 30 businesses with beryllium found that none followed all of OSHA's recommended safeguards.

It said thousands of firms use beryllium, but only a small fraction have done blood tests to gauge workers' exposure.

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