Brush to test Pennsylvania workers for beryllium
July 23, 1999
For the first time, America's leading producer of beryllium will test dozens of its workers in Pennsylvania to see whether they have been harmed by the toxic metal.
Brush Wellman, Inc., said yesterday it will offer blood tests to the 175 workers at its plant in Shoemakersville, Pa., north of Reading. The tests will determine whether the employees may have been affected by beryllium dust, which can cause an incurable, often fatal lung disease.
"Obviously, we hope we won't find any evidence of chronic beryllium disease there," Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes said.
The action is significant because Brush has said little beryllium dust is in the Pennsylvania plant and that beryllium disease is not a serious problem there. In fact, records show that the company ignored advice from federal regulators in 1996 that Brush test the workers.
Plant worker Leo Peters welcomes the blood testing. "It will be helpful. It gives you the knowledge to make a decision [on whether to continue working in the plant]," said Mr. Peters, a 49-year-old maintenance mechanic. The medical tests will be voluntary and begin in January, the firm said.
One worker who requested anonymity said he thought the company is offering the medical tests because of pressure from The Blade's recent investigative series on the beryllium industry. After the articles were published, he said, several workers requested the blood tests. But the Brush spokesman said the testing had been planned for some time and is part of a larger program to screen workers throughout the company. Testing has been conducted at several Brush facilities, including the 780-employee plant outside Elmore, 20 miles southeast of Toledo.
But Brush Medical Director Dr. David Deubner told The Blade last year that testing had not been conducted at the Pennsylvania plant because "we're concentrating our effort where we know we have serious problems."
And in 1996, after an inspection of the plant, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommended that Brush offer blood tests to the workers. OSHA said no regulation required such testing, but the agency thought the screening would be prudent.
Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal used in nuclear bombs and other weapons. In addition, it is used in the automotive, electronics, and telecommunications industries.
Cleveland-based Brush reports that 142 of its workers have contracted beryllium disease since the 1940s, including 53 at the Elmore plant. Experts estimate 1,200 cases nationwide in all industries.
Brush's Pennsylvania plant rolls and cuts beryllium-copper alloy. Since the plant opened in 1958, only one worker there has been diagnosed with beryllium disease, and that was in the 1980s. But Brush recently learned that a worker has a blood abnormality caused by beryllium dust - the first such case at the facility.
An abnormal blood test does not mean someone has beryllium disease, but it is a sign that the person may very well develop the illness. Workers with blood abnormalities must undergo further tests to determine if they have the disease.
The worker who requested anonymity said some employees were shocked when they learned a colleague had an abnormal blood test. "They couldn't believe it. Nobody ever thought it could ever happen to us."
Younger workers were particularly surprised, said Mr. Peters, the maintenance mechanic. "I don't think they realized they were in any danger."
Brush officials have maintained that the amount of beryllium dust in the plant is very low - far below the federal safety standard. That limit is 2 micrograms of dust per cubic meter of air - the equivalent of the amount of dust the size of a pencil tip spread throughout a 6-foot-high box the size of a football field.
The Blade series, published March 28 through April 2, detailed how the U.S. government and the beryllium industry knowingly allowed thousands of workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust. Dozens of these workers went on to contract beryllium disease, and some died.
The series has sparked numerous reactions, including a congressional investigation.
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