What is Beryllium?
Beryllium is a brittle, steel-gray metal found as a component of coal, oil, certain rock minerals, volcanic dust, and soil. Because beryllium is a light weight metal and extremely stiff in its elemental form, it has several applications in the aerospace, nuclear, and manufacturing industries. Additionally, beryllium is a versatile metal alloy used in automobiles, computers, sports equipment (golf clubs and bicycle frames), in dental appliances, non-sparking tools, wheelchairs, and electronic gadgets.
Beryllium and the Environment
Beryllium dust enters the air from burning coal and oil, and eventually settles over land and water. Beryllium can also enter water from erosion of rocks and soil, and from industrial waste. Some beryllium compounds will dissolve in water, but most stick to particles and settle to the bottom. While most beryllium remains bound to soil, it does not accumulate in the food chain.
Beryllium exposure varies among different segments of the population. The general population is exposed to normally low levels of beryllium in air, food, and water. People working in industries where beryllium is mined, processed, machined, or converted into metal, alloys, and other chemicals, may be exposed to high levels of beryllium. People living near these industries or near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites may also be exposed to higher than normal levels of beryllium.
Beryllium Health Effects
Beryllium can be harmful if you breathe it. The effects depend on the amount and length of exposure. If beryllium air levels are high enough, breathing it in can result in an acute condition called acute beryllium disease, which resembles pneumonia.
A condition called Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD) can occur many years after exposure to higher than normal levels of beryllium. CBD can cause weakness, fatigue, difficulty breathing, and can also result in anorexia, weight loss, and, in advanced cases, right side heart enlargement and heart disease.
CBD only develops in those who have become sensitized to beryllium (beryllium sensitization). A sensitized person is one who has developed an allergic reaction to beryllium. A worker may become sensitized at any point during job exposure, or may not become sensitized until after leaving a job where there has been beryllium exposure. Individuals who become sensitive to beryllium may develop an inflammatory reaction in the respiratory system.
While beryllium causes lung and skin disease in 2 to 10 percent of exposed workers, the general population is unlikely to develop acute or chronic beryllium disease, because ambient air levels of beryllium are normally very low. Beryllium contact with skin that has been scraped or cut may cause rashes or ulcers. Swallowing beryllium has not been reported to cause any health effects in humans because very little beryllium is absorbed from the stomach and intestines.
Beryllium as a Carcinogen (Cancer-Causing)
Long term exposure to beryllium can increase the risk of developing lung cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that beryllium is a human carcinogen (cancer-causing). However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that beryllium is a probable human carcinogen.
Beryllium and Your Family
Most families are not exposed to high levels of beryllium. However, children should avoid playing in soils near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites where beryllium may have been discarded.
There are no studies on the health effects of children exposed to beryllium. It is expected that the health effects in children are similar to those seen in adults, but it is unclear whether children are affected differently than adults in their susceptibility to beryllium.
It is unknown whether beryllium exposure results in birth defects or other developmental effects. The studies conducted in animals have not been conclusive.
Beryllium can be measured in the urine and blood. However, the amount of beryllium in the blood or urine may not accurately reflect how much or how recently you were exposed. Beryllium levels can also be measured in lung and skin samples. Another blood test, the blood beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (BeLPT), identifies beryllium sensitization and has predictive value for CBD.
Federal Government Standards for Beryllium
The EPA restricts the amount of beryllium that industries may release into the air to 0.01 µg/m3, averaged over a 30-day period. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets a limit of 2 µg/m3 of workroom air for an 8-hour work shift.
Beryllium Exposure - Getting Legal Help
If you or a loved one have experienced any symptoms or have developed any medical conditions related to beryllium exposure, you should first seek immediate medical attention. In the event that you exposed to high levels of beryllium at your place of work without adequate protection or in violation of government standards, you may wish to meet with an experienced attorney to discuss your options and to protect your right to a legal remedy for your injuries.