Scientific evidence has confirmed that beryllium is a human carcinogen and a number of large epidemiological studies have shown an increased risk of lung cancer among those exposed to beryllium. An estimated 18,000 workers may be exposed to beryllium and beryllium oxide in the workplace.
Beryllium (Be – atomic number 4) is one of the lightest of all metals and has one of the highest melting points of any light metal. Beryllium is a brittle, steel-gray metal that became readily available to industry in 1957. Beryllium metal is used principally in aerospace and defense applications because of its stiffness, light in weight, and dimensional stability over a wide temperature range.
Beryllium and Lung Cancer
Unfortunately, beryllium also causes lung and skin disease in 2% to 10% of exposed workers. Occupational exposure most often occurs in mining, extraction, and in the processing of alloy metals containing beryllium. The adverse health effects of beryllium exposure are caused by the body’s immune system reacting with the metal, resulting in an allergic-type response. You can be exposed to low levels of beryllium by breathing air, eating food, or drinking water that contains beryllium.
Depending on how workers are exposed, the diseases can affect different tissues and organs. Breathing in fumes or dusts of beryllium compounds may injure the lungs. Direct contact with beryllium fumes or dusts may injure the exposed areas of the body, such as the eyes or the skin. Beryllium may also affect such organs as the liver, kidneys, heart, nervous system, and the lymphatic system, which carries water, white blood cells and proteins to the blood.
The risk continues the rest of your life, even if you tested normal for beryllium sensitization at one time. This condition is called chronic beryllium disease. This disease can occur long after exposure to small amounts of either the soluble or the insoluble forms of beryllium. If you have this disease you may feel weak, tired, and have difficulty breathing.
Beryllium – Secondary Exposure
The risk of exposure is not limited to those working directly with beryllium-it extends to coworkers support or maintenance staff at a plant using beryllium and to the beryllium worker’s family members. For example janitors or secretaries at a workplace that uses beryllium may be exposed to beryllium dust fumes or gases. The family member of a beryllium worker who brings home beryllium dust on shoes or clothing also risks exposure.
- Unexplained coughing
- Night sweats
- Shortness of breath with physical exertion
- Chest and joint pain
- Blood in the sputum (sputum is saliva, mucus, and other discharges that can be coughed up from the respiratory system)
- Rapid heart rate
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Skin rash
- Fevers and night sweats
Industries at Risk for Beryllium Exposure
- Electronics (transistors, heat sinks, x-ray windows)
- Atomic energy industry (heat shields, nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons)
- Laboratory work (research and development, metallurgy, chemistry)
- Metal working (pure beryllium, copper and aluminum alloys, jet brake pads, aerospace components)
- Ceramic manufacturing (semi-conductor chips, ignition modules, crucibles, jet engine blades, rocket covers)
- Extraction (ore and scrap metal)
- Dental work (alloys and crowns, bridges, dental plates)
- Prior to 1951, beryllium was used in the fluorescent lamp industry.
If you have been exposed to beryllium and develop unexplained cough, shortness of breath, fatigue or skin rash, you should inform your doctor of your past beryllium exposure or seek information from a doctor who specializes in occupational lung diseases. It may be important to contact an attorney who can help you protect your legal rights.