Beryllium is a type of metal that is strong, lightweight, brittle, and steel gray in color. It can be found in oil, coal, some rock minerals, volcanic dust, and soil. Breathing high levels of beryllium dust and particles can cause cancer, chronic beryllium disease (CBD), and other health problems. Exposure to beryllium usually occurs in workers in certain industries or in people who live or work near factories or plants that emit beryllium dust.
In recent years, an increasing number of legal claims have been filed alleging that people have died or suffered serious health problems due to beryllium exposure. This article discusses how people can be exposed to beryllium, the health risks linked to beryllium, and the various ways people can get compensated for illnesses caused by beryllium. (To learn about lawsuits arising from other chemicals or drugs, see Nolo's article Toxic Torts Overview.)
Beryllium and Where it is Found
Beryllium is an effective hardening agent in metal alloys like beryllium copper. Because it is lightweight, strong, and flexible, beryllium and beryllium compounds are used -- alone or in combination with other metals -- in many industries, including:
- defense and aerospace industries (to make high-speed aircraft, missiles, space vehicles, and satellites)
- metal working
- ceramic manufacturing (semi-conductor chips, ignition modules, crucibles, jet engine blades, rocket covers)
- atomic energy industry
- laboratory work (research and development, metallurgy, chemistry)
- extracting ore and scrap metal
- manufacturing dental devices such as alloys, crowns, and bridges
Prior to 1951, beryllium was used to make fluorescent lights, but that practice was discontinued after many workers got sick from beryllium exposure.
Government Standards for Beryllium Exposure Levels
Because of the known health problems associated with beryllium exposure and its use in many industries, government agencies have adopted beryllium release standards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) restricts the amount of beryllium that industries may release into the outside air, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) restricts the amount of beryllium that may be released into workplace air.
One independent organization of experts, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), believes that current OSHA standards are not safe and recommends minimum release levels that are much lower than OSHA's numbers. The ACGIH urges employers and employees to minimize the use of beryllium and to take proactive steps to reduce workplace exposure. Get more information from the ACGIH's website at www.acgih.org/home.htm.
Health Problems Caused by Beryllium
Inhalation of beryllium at higher than normal levels can cause a number of health problems.
- Cancer. Beryllium and beryllium compounds are carcinogens (agents that are known to cause cancer). Long-term beryllium exposure, in particular, increases the risk of developing lung cancer.
- Acute Beryllium Disease. This disease resembles pneumonia and is caused by exposure to very high levels of beryllium over a short period of time. Due to government standards restricting the amount of beryllium that can be released into the air, nowadays this disease is rare.
- Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD). Today, CBD is the most common health problem associated with beryllium exposure. CBD can develop in individuals with a sensitivity to beryllium (about 1-15% of the population) who have been exposed to higher than normal levels of beryllium for many years. CBD can cause fatigue, weakness, night sweats, difficulty in breathing, and a persistent dry cough. It can result in anorexia and weight loss, and may also lead to right-side heart enlargement and heart disease in advanced cases. CBD is treatable (but not curable) with medicine. If left untreated, it can be fatal.
- Skin rashes and ulcers. Contact between beryllium and skin that has been scraped or cut can cause rashes, ulcers, or bumps under the skin.
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