- August 21, 2017
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Beryllium is a substance that probably doesn’t appear in your everyday conversation, unless you are studying chemistry or you work in certain industries. But repeated exposure to beryllium can cause a number of health problems and serious diseases.
After four decades, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) finally issued a safety exposure rule for beryllium in January, 2017. However, in June of 2017, the new administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) argued for changes to the agreement that was so long in the making.
What is Beryllium?
A metallic element found in nature, beryllium has many commercial uses. Some businesses that use or expose their workers to beryllium include:
- Aerospace and aircraft manufacturing and maintenance
- Computer manufacturers
- Construction workers in certain industries
- Dental laboratories
- Foundries and metals reclamation/recycling
- Shipyard workers
- Telecommunications industries.
Risk arises from repeated exposure in situations where beryllium is mined, processed, or converted into metallic alloys or other substances, or from living near an uncontrolled hazardous waste site containing beryllium.
Exposure to Beryllium: When is it a Problem?
We all experience low levels of beryllium in the course of our lives—it’s in our air, water, and food—and these low levels pose no risk. However, persons employed in industries that require repeated exposure to beryllium, or those who live near an industrial site using beryllium, can develop illnesses. Continued high levels of exposure to beryllium can create a number of health hazards:
- Beryllium sensitivity, which is similar to an allergic response by the body. Sensitization can lead to other beryllium-related diseases, such as chronic beryllium disease.
- Chronic beryllium disease, which is a lung disorder characterized by chronic scarring. The scarring keeps oxygen from moving as it should between the lungs and the blood, inhibiting breathing. This is the most common disease resulting from beryllium exposure.
- Lung cancer, which is a rare result of beryllium exposure.
- Acute beryllium disease, which is an illness similar to pneumonia and is rare.
Symptoms of various types of beryllium diseases are eye irritation, skin irritation or rashes, coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, wheezing, night sweats, and fatigue.
Beryllium sensitivity does not always exhibit symptoms. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that, of the workers who do become sensitized, up to 100 percent of them may possibly develop chronic beryllium disease.
Beryllium levels can be measured in samples taken from urine, blood, lungs, and skin. The blood beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (BeLPT), which is a more specific test, detects beryllium sensitivity.
The Proposed Rule Change
The January 2017 DOL rule is supposed to supply needed worker protections that have been a long time in coming. However, the new rule proposed in June would modify certain provisions of the January rule. While the exposure limits which protect workers from chronic beryllium lung disease would be kept, associated provisions, such as those dealing with the need for personal protective equipment (PPE), housekeeping practices, and regular medical surveillance for those in the construction and shipyard industries, would be changed.
The United Steelworkers Union (USW) spoke out immediately against the new provisions for shipyard and construction workers who are regularly exposed to beryllium. The USW claims that “employers would no longer have to measure beryllium levels in the workplace or provide medical testing to workers at risk of fatal lung disease. In addition, workers would not have the right to wear protective clothing or to shower at the end of the work shift, making it possible for beryllium to be taken home and exposed to spouses and children.”
The USW represents over 850,000 workers in the U.S. It is not clear as of this writing whether the June provisions of the rule will stand, but it is certainly possible.
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