Beryllium is a brittle, steel-gray metal found as a component of coal, oil, certain rock minerals, volcanic dust, and soil. Because beryllium is lightweight and extremely stiff, it is used in the aerospace, nuclear, and manufacturing industries. Additionally, beryllium alloys are used in automobiles, computers, sports equipment (golf clubs and bicycle frames), dental appliances, non-sparking tools, wheelchairs, and electronics.
Beryllium dust enters the air from burning coal and oil, and enters the water from industrial waste and the erosion of rocks and soil. Most beryllium remains bound to soil and doesn’t accumulate in the food chain. Most people are exposed to low levels of beryllium in air, food, and water. Workers in industries where beryllium is mined, processed, machined, or converted (into metal, alloys, and other chemicals) may be exposed to high levels of beryllium. Additionally, the people living near these industries or waste sites may be exposed to high levels of beryllium.
Beryllium Health Effects
Beryllium can be harmful if you breathe it, and the health effects depend on the amount and length of exposure. If beryllium levels are high enough, breathing it in can result in an acute condition called acute beryllium disease, which resembles pneumonia. However, acute beryllium disease is uncommon today.
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, 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, meaning they have developed an allergic reaction. A worker may become sensitized at any point during job exposure or even after leaving the job, and can experience respiratory inflammation.
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 because very little is absorbed from the stomach and intestines.
Beryllium and Lung Cancer
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).
Preventing Beryllium Exposure
Most people aren’t exposed to high levels of beryllium. However, children should avoid playing in soils near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites where beryllium may have been discarded. It’s unclear whether children are affected by beryllium differently than adults, and it’s unknown whether beryllium exposure results in birth or developmental defects.
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 can be measured in the urine and blood, but tests do not typically reflect how much or how recently the exposure occurred. The beryllium lymphocyte proliferation blood test identifies beryllium sensitization and has predictive value for CBD. Beryllium levels can also be measured in lung and skin samples.
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 personal injury attorney to discuss your options and to protect your right to a legal remedy for your injuries.