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Posted at 10:35 a.m. EDT Friday, September 3, 1999

  

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Lawmaker wants beryllium compensation plan expanded

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) -- A Pennsylvania congressman wants the government to expand a proposed plan to compensate weapons workers sickened by beryllium, a potentially toxic metal used to make weapons.

Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., wants the compensation plan to include contractors and subcontractors at plants where workers were made sick while making nuclear weapons.

Nine of 104 workers recently tested at Brush Wellman Inc.'s beryllium plant outside Toledo had a blood abnormality -- a sign that they may develop an incurable lung disease caused by inhaling beryllium dust.

``People who were exposed while working directly or indirectly for the federal government should be covered,'' Kanjorski told The Blade for a story published today.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced in July that it would compensate thousands of workers for medical care and lost wages. Congress must still approve the compensation, which would end years of litigation over claims by the workers that they became sick while making nuclear weapons.

The plan would initially limit compensation to workers who became ill from exposure to beryllium, a chemical element that was used as a strengthening alloy in atomic weapons.

But the plan did not specify whether contractors would be covered.

Energy Department spokesman Jeff Sherwood told The Blade ``the intent of this proposal is to help any worker'' harmed by beryllium at Energy Department operations or suppliers.

Researchers estimate there have been 1,200 documented cases of beryllium disease nationwide since the 1940s, The Blade reported in a series of stories in March.

Beryllium, which causes a debilitating lung disease for which there is treatment but no cure, has been used historically at 20 Energy Department sites. The workers were largely in seven states: Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington.

At least 53 current or former workers at the Brush Wellman plant in Elmore have contracted beryllium disease -- an incurable, often-fatal lung disease -- from inhaling the metal's dust.

The Blade also reported in March that government and industry officials knew for years about the dangers of beryllium but allowed workers to be exposed to it.

Last month, it was known that two contract workers had blood abnormalities. Now, nine workers show abnormalities, said Dr. Tom Lieser, a St. Charles Mercy Hospital physician who is coordinating the testing.

He said 104 contract workers have been tested. The rate of positive tests -- about one in 12 -- is similar to that found among Brush Wellman employees.

A blood abnormality does not mean that a worker has beryllium disease, but that the body has reacted to exposure to beryllium dust. Experts believe a large percentage of those with blood abnormalities will develop the often-fatal illness.

Brush Wellman spokesman Hugh Hanes would not comment. The company has repeatedly said it adequately warns contractors about the hazards of beryllium.


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