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Published: Thursday, 1/17/2013

DEADLY ALLIANCE: WEAPONS OVER WORKERS

Wife of beryllium worker contracts illness

BY SAM ROE
BLADE SENIOR WRITER

Carol Mason has never worked a single day in a beryllium plant. She has never poured beryllium powder, run a beryllium furnace, or sanded a beryllium part.

Yet she has one of the worst cases of beryllium disease in the country.

She can't breathe without an oxygen tank, walking makes her heart race, and her medicine makes her moody and overweight.

Exactly how the 64-year-old from Wood County contracted the disease remains a mystery. But one possibility: She got it from her husband, Bill, who worked at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant near Elmore for nearly 40 years.

DEADLY ALLIANCE: How government and industry chose weapons over workers

One year, after he was hurt in a beryllium furnace explosion, Mrs. Mason spent a week carefully picking out the tiny, metallic flakes embedded in his face and scalp.

"I combed his hair and brushed his face every day," she says from her living room chair, an oxygen tube running up to her nose. "I had to wash the sheets every day from the flakes falling out. I had no idea it was any danger to me."

Scientists say her case illustrates just how easy it is to contract beryllium disease - that breathing seemingly insignificant amounts of the metallic dust can be deadly.

They say Mrs. Mason serves as a warning to doctors, industry executives, and government officials that they may need to rethink the scope of the beryllium problem.

"A much larger population may be at risk than is recognized," concludes a research paper in 1991 by two scientists who studied Mrs. Mason's case.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, cases like Mrs. Mason's were not uncommon.

Several dozen people living near beryllium plants in Lorain, O., and Reading, Pa., developed the disease from air pollution or from workers coming home in dusty clothing.

But as air emissions improved, and workers began changing before going home, cases outside the factories disappeared.

In fact, Mrs. Mason, who was diagnosed in 1990, is the only documented nonoccupational case in 40 years.

Still, doctors say more may be out there. They just may be unrecognized or misdiagnosed.

That almost happened to Mrs. Mason.

She was a JC Penney stock manager when she increasingly became short of breath. Doctors gave her numerous tests, X-rays, and antibiotics. At one point they thought she had sarcoidosis, another lung illness.

Finally, two years later, doctors made the connection between her husband's job and her ailment, confirming beryllium disease.

The Masons were stunned. They had never suspected beryllium. Mrs. Mason had only been inside the Brush Wellman plant twice - both times during tours.

But there was that accident in 1981: A beryllium furnace exploded in her husband's face, leaving metallic flakes embedded in his skin.

"It was like sticking your head in a cannon and having the powder go off in your face," he recalls.

At the hospital, doctors told Mrs. Mason that her husband would be all right but suggested she buy a fine-hair brush and try to remove the flakes. And a nurse handed her a garbage bag. Inside were Mr. Mason's work clothes.

Mrs. Mason removed his wallet and keys and dropped the bag of clothes off at Brush Wellman's guard shack. Then she went to work on her husband's face.

At no time, she says, did Brush officials or anyone else warn her that she was in danger.

Nine years later, in 1990, she was diagnosed with beryllium disease. When she was, the Masons sued Brush, citing the furnace explosion. They eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Marc Kolanz, Brush's safety director, says he didn't warn Mrs. Mason about cleaning her husband's face because he didn't see any danger. The metallic flakes, he says, were almost certainly not beryllium but another metal, molybdenum.

Either way, he says, he does not know how she contracted the disease.

In court filings, Brush Wellman faulted the Masons: Mrs. Mason for opening the bag of clothes, and Mr. Mason for allegedly not showering and washing his hair at the end of each workday.

Mr. Mason declined to comment on that allegation.

Today, the Masons live in a modest ranch house on State Route 25 between Toledo and Bowling Green. Mr. Mason is retired, and despite the furnace explosion, he is healthy and free of beryllium disease.

But his wife has been on oxygen for eight years. She can't go anywhere without her portable tank. At the grocery store, she puts the tank in the front of her shopping cart, and at the mall she rests in inconspicuous places, like shoe stores.

Medication has caused her to lose some hair and gain some weight. She once put on 90 pounds in eight months. "I was like a balloon. I went from a size 14 to a 22."

She finds the bright spots where she can.

"Last summer we went to the zoo with the grandkids," she says proudly.

"We sat down a lot,' her husband adds.

"We sat down a lot," she says, "but we went."



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