Beryllium casualties sound off

April 8, 2000

They never worked for Brush Wellman. They never manufactured beryllium. They never worried much about toxic beryllium dust.

But now all three - Mike Shutters, Steve Doncouse, and Denny McAnally - have beryllium disease, an incurable lung illness caused by inhaling the metal's dust.

They say they contracted the disease at Brush Wellman's beryllium plant near Elmore, where they have done construction work for contracting firms hired by Brush.

Mr. Shutters, a 39-year-old electrician for the GEM Industrial contracting firm, says he worked only on the outside of Brush Wellman's plant, occasionally passing through the facility on his way to the lunchroom.

"I can't think for the life of me where I got [the disease] other than [beryllium dust] is blowing around out there,'' the Maumee resident says.

The three construction workers are among the latest to sue Brush Wellman and are the first local contract employees to publicly discuss how beryllium exposure has affected them and other building trades workers. Until recently, the only Toledo-area workers being diagnosed with the chronic, often-fatal illness were Brush Wellman's own employees.

Mr. Doncouse, a 36-year-old pipefitter from Toledo, says he was stunned when he learned he had the disease. He was notified by the Cleveland Clinic, in a letter that he left unopened on the kitchen counter for some time. "I didn't want to know,'' he says.

Mr. McAnally, a 34-year-old Bowling Green ironworker, says he is worried for his 1-year-old daughter. "Is she going to be able to know her dad?" he asks. "I don't know.''

The three filed suit against Brush Wellman last month in Cleveland, where the company has headquarters. They allege Brush exposed them to high levels of beryllium dust and did not adequately warn them of the dangers.

"[Brush representatives] said there was danger there, but they downplayed it,'' Mr. McAnally says. Mr. Shutters says he never wore a respirator at Brush - nor was told he had to.

Brush Wellman attorney Thomas Clare declined to comment, saying the company does not discuss pending litigation.

Nor would he disclose the total number of contract workers who have gotten beryllium disease at Brush's Elmore plant. At least four construction workers are known to have contracted the illness there; at least seven others have shown blood abnormalities - signs that they may develop the illness.

Illness among Brush Wellman's own employees continues to mount: At least 75 have contracted the disease at the plant since the 1950s. At least 22 have been diagnosed since last June.

Numerous other Brush employees have blood abnormalities. Brush recently reported that 8 per cent of the Elmore plant work force, or 55 of 731 workers tested, showed blood abnormalities.

Brush Wellman has been under fire since early last year, when The Blade published a six-part series on the hazards of beryllium, a strong, lightweight metal used in the defense, automotive, and electronics industries. The series documented a 50-year pattern of misconduct by the U.S. government and the American beryllium industry - wrongdoing that caused the injuries and deaths of dozens of workers.

At least 20 lawsuits have been filed against Brush Wellman within the last year, with many of the claims mirroring the findings of The Blade series.

The three contract workers suing Brush were diagnosed with beryllium disease last year following medical tests offered by Rudolph/Libbe Companies, the parent company of GEM Industrial. All three workers were employed by GEM Industrial during assignments at the Brush plant.

Mr. McAnally and Mr. Doncouse say they periodically worked at Brush in recent years. But Mr. Shutters says he was there just a few weeks in the 1980s and never worked inside the plant.

Mr. Shutters's attorney, Jack Fynes, says: "This is the first case - that I'm aware of - of a contract employee who was on site but predominantly outside the buildings but nevertheless contracted the disease.''

None of the men shows visible signs of illness. Doctors say about a third of beryllium victims die of the disease, a third become disabled, and a third remain relatively healthy.

Mr. Doncouse says that every time he coughs or becomes winded he wonders whether it is related to his condition. "You don't climb a set of steps without thinking about it.''

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