Local construction giant Rudolph/Libbe Companies reported yesterday that at least two of its workers have contracted beryllium disease at the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore.
The illnesses mark the first known cases of contract workers getting the incurable, often fatal lung disease at the beryllium plant.
"We are all emotionally devastated by this news," said Bill Rudolph, president of Rudolph/Libbe Companies.
The Rudolph/Libbe cases are significant because they suggest that far more people may be at risk from beryllium disease than previously thought. While government and industry officials have acknowledged for years that full-time beryllium workers could become ill, authorities seldom have focused on the risks to contract workers, such as electricians, carpenters, and others spending limited time in beryllium plants.
Rudolph/Libbe said hundreds of its workers potentially have been exposed to toxic beryllium dust at the Brush Wellman plant in 30 years - 640 in just the last five years.
Local environmentalists renewed their call yesterday for Brush to offer medical tests to anyone who has set foot in the plant, including contract employees, delivery workers, and residents who have taken tours.
"Brush has a moral responsibility to do this," said Theresa Norgard, whose husband, David, is a Brush employee with beryllium disease. "They've led all of us to believe that beryllium disease is a small problem. It's not. These cases underscore what a big problem it potentially is."
Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes said the beryllium company is "deeply saddened" to learn of the Rudolph/Libbe illnesses.
"It just simply heightens our resolve to solve this problem once and for all," he said.
He reiterated that Brush goes to great lengths to protect all workers on plant site. "We require all contractor employees to follow the same safety rules as our own employees."
Brush is America's leading producer of beryllium, with headquarters in Cleveland and plants in several states, including the 780-employee plant near Elmore.
An estimated 1,200 workers have contracted beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s, including 65 current or former workers at the Elmore plant.
Brush has been under fire since March, when a series in The Blade documented how the U.S. government and the beryllium industry repeatedly sacrificed worker safety for production of the metal, which is used in nuclear bombs and other weapons.
At least four local contractors, including Rudolph/Libbe, subsequently pulled out of the Elmore plant, citing safety concerns.
And Rudolph/Libbe, in a move believed to be unprecedented in the beryllium industry, started offering blood tests to hundreds of its current and former workers.
Last month, Rudolph/Libbe reported that seven of its current or former workers showed blood abnormalities. Now, the firm reports that eight of 170 workers tested show abnormalities and that additional testing found that at least two of those eight have beryllium disease.
Mr. Rudolph said he is surprised by the findings and that nothing like this has happened to his workers before. He said Rudolph/Libbe did everything it could to protect its workers, including monitoring the air around workers to ensure that dust counts were well within safety limits.
When asked if he faulted Brush Wellman, Mr. Rudolph said he hadn't given that notion much thought and that his company is focusing on taking care of its workers. He said Rudolph/Libbe is helping the victims find the best medical care as well as counselors to help cope with any emotional issues.
He would not release the victims' names, only saying they are building trades workers. They are free of visible symptoms, he said, "and it is our fervent prayer that they remain so."
Sarah Ogdahl, program director of Toledo office of Ohio Citizen Action, a statewide environmental group, called the illnesses "very tragic."
"It just goes to show that this risk is real," Ms. Ogdahl said.
She renewed Ohio Citizen Action's call for Brush to pay for blood tests for anyone who wants them, including neighbors of the plant. Brush offers blood tests to its current workers but not to former employees, contract workers, or neighbors.
Brush's Mr. Hanes said the contract companies should be responsible for blood-testing contract workers. And he said there is no evidence that neighbors have been affected by beryllium dust.
Rudolph/Libbe Companies, which has headquarters in Walbridge, is the parent company of GEM Industrial, Rudolph/Libbe, Inc., and Rudolph/Libbe Properties, Inc. The company is one of the area's largest construction firms, employing 1,500 trade and construction professionals. About 25 regularly worked at Brush until Rudolph/Libbe pulled them out.
Mr. Hanes said he knows of only one other case of beryllium disease among Brush contractors at any of its facilities. That case involves an electrician at Brush's Tucson, Ariz., plant.
But a document that was recently disclosed in a lawsuit against Brush lists another possible case of a Brush contract worker getting the disease. The worker had been repairing ductwork, with no more than 64 hours exposure to beryllium dust. The document does not state when and where this case occurred.