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Beryllium Disease

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search 6,500 pages of Beryllium documents (be sure to select the Beryllium Collection)

A covert deal between government and industry caused thousands of workers and community residents to contract an incurable, often fatal, deterioration of the lungs called beryllium disease: hundreds of the victims have died, and more deaths are expected. The deal, which killed proposed workplace health standards for beryllium dust, was unknown to workers or community residents who were repeatedly told by the beryllium industry that exposures to beryllium dust were safe. Beryllium disease erodes the lungs, making it hard for a victim to even walk across a room without severe pain and exhaustion, and usually results in a slow, painful death by suffocation.

Now for the first time, the Chemical Industry Archives makes publicly available, previously classified government documents and internal industry memoranda about beryllium. The documents show that beryllium producers and the government hid the truth about the health risks of the metal (Read the document) and made a backroom deal to block critical worker health protections in the name of national security. (Read the document) In the words of an Atomic Energy Commission official in 1951: "Unless (he was) instructed otherwise, production comes first, then health" (Read the document).

While the death toll continues to climb, the documents reveal:

  • Industry and the government knew as early as the 1940s that exposure to minute quantities of beryllium dust could cause an incurable, potentially fatal, lung disease commonly referred to as beryllium disease. Though no complete registry of cases of beryllium disease currently exists, it is estimated that at least 1,300 people throughout the U.S. have contracted the disease, and hundreds of those have died from it. Despite this knowledge, neither the government nor the industry took adequate measures to safeguard workers' health, resulting in an untold number of unnecessary deaths throughout the past 50 years.
  • Cleveland-based Brush Wellman Inc. is the largest manufacturer of beryllium in the world and the only processor of the metal in its pure form still operating in the U.S. Other than its Elmore, Ohio processing plant, Brush Wellman also owns and operates manufacturing and distribution facilities in twelve states and five foreign countries that utilize processed beryllium.
  • Brush Wellman cut a backroom deal with the government in the late 1970s to kill a proposed OSHA standard that would have drastically reduced workers' exposure to toxic beryllium dust. (Read the documents 1, 2)
  • According to lawsuits brought by injured workers, at the time the standard was dropped, both Brush and the federal officials knew that two percent of the workers in Brush's plants had contracted the untreatable disease. (Read the document
  • Beryllium disease is not limited to workers. "Neighborhood cases" of the disease were first documented in the 1940s when ten people not employed by Brush but who all lived within a mile of the plant and were exposed to smokestack emissions of the toxic dust were diagnosed with beryllium disease. In 1948, the first of many cases among workers' wives was diagnosed. These women were exposed to the toxic metal dust while washing their husband's work clothes. (Read the document)
  • Brush Wellman denies to this day that any of the residents living near its plants have been impacted by beryllium, claiming that beryllium disease is "not a community health issue." (Read the document)
  • A 1997 study by NIOSH revealed that one in 10 workers at Brush's Elmore, OH beryllium processing plant either have the disease or show signs of susceptibility to it. No comprehensive health studies have ever been conducted in the surrounding neighborhoods, despite the fact that the community has been exposed to beryllium dust from smokestack emissions. (Read the document)
  • The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted a health consultation in Elmore in 2001, and announced its intention to investigate levels of beryllium dust in houses near the plant. (Read the document)

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last updated: march.27.2009

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The Chemical Industry Archives is a project of the Environmental Working Group.
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