Ohio EPA to test staff for beryllium

February 25, 2000

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency says it will offer blood tests to dozens of its inspectors who may have been exposed to toxic beryllium dust at the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore.

The program is believed to be the first of its kind at the Ohio EPA.

"It's a relatively small expense for us to incur, and it's the appropriate thing to do,'' Ohio EPA Director Christopher Jones said yesterday.

The Ohio EPA will pay for the blood tests and any follow-up exams for the roughly 60 current or former Ohio EPA employees who have visited the Brush plant or several smaller sites with the potential for beryllium exposure.

The agency became interested in offering blood tests last year after a six-part Blade series documented how the U.S. government and the beryllium industry knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust.

Congress began two investigations, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration warned workers that government safety standards may not be protecting them, and several contractors pulled their employees out of the Brush plant and offered them medical tests, discovering at least four cases of lung disease.

John Vlasko, the Ohio EPA's health and safety coordinator, said blood-testing of state inspectors will cost $12,000. The program may be expanded and extended for many years, costing even more.

Mr. Vlasko said he asked Brush Wellman if state inspectors could be tested under Brush's health and safety program, but the company responded that its program was set up to accommodate testing of its own employees, not outside workers.

Mr. Vlasko said Brush told him that if the state inspectors had been following the company's safety rules while at the plant, the inspectors needn't worry about beryllium disease.

Cleveland-based Brush Wellman is America's leading beryllium producer. In a written statement from one of its attorneys, Thomas Clare, the company said the Ohio EPA "is ultimately responsible for making its own decisions regarding the testing of its employees.''

"Brush Wellman has provided - and will continue [to] provide - whatever technical assistance it can to the Ohio EPA, both in terms of providing information regarding qualified sources of blood testing and in sharing Brush Wellman's own experience with such testing,'' the statement said.

Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal. Its dust can cause a chronic, often-fatal lung illness.

An estimated 1,200 people have contracted the illness nationwide since the 1940s, including at least 65 current or former Brush workers at the Elmore plant.

State officials have identified 58 current or former Ohio EPA employees who have visited sites with potential beryllium dust exposure; 54 have signed up to have their blood tested. Most are inspectors who have conducted work at Brush's Elmore plant, but a few may have been exposed at two businesses in Marion, O., and a former Brush facility in Luckey.

One person interested in having his blood tested is Jeffery Steers, assistant chief of the Ohio EPA district office in Bowling Green. Mr. Steers said he has been to Brush's Elmore plant two or three times. "I'm being cautious and taking things as facts present themselves," he said.

Testing will begin next month, though one Ohio EPA inspector already has had his blood drawn. The results were negative.

"He has probably had the most potential for exposure of any [Ohio EPA] employee'' in terms of time spent at the Brush plant, Mr. Vlasko said.

An abnormal blood test does not mean a worker has beryllium disease; it indicates the body has reacted to exposure to beryllium dust. Workers with blood abnormalities must undergo further tests to determine whether they have the disease.

All Ohio EPA employees who routinely go to the Brush plant will be given periodic blood tests, Mr. Vlasko said.

And the agency is taking steps to protect its inspectors from beryllium disease. That includes increasing training for employees and minimizing the number of inspectors sent to the plant.

Mr. Vlasko said EPA officials should consider testing inspectors in other states.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. EPA said she did not know of any testing of federal EPA workers for beryllium disease.

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