Subcontractors face beryllium risk

September 3, 1999

More contract workers at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant outside Elmore have been affected by the potentially deadly metal.

Nine of 104 workers tested show a blood abnormality - a sign that they may develop an incurable lung disease caused by inhaling beryllium dust.

In light of these findings, U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D., Pa.) wants the Clinton administration to expand its proposal to compensate beryllium victims to include contractors and subcontractors, such as those who have done work at Brush.

"People who were exposed while working directly or indirectly for the federal government should be covered," said Mr. Kanjorski, whose district includes beryllium disease victims.

Beryllium is a strong, light-weight metal produced by Cleveland-based Brush Wellman, Inc., and used by the government in nuclear bombs and other weapons.

Fifty-three current or former workers at the Elmore plant have contracted the disease, but until recently the only people at the facility known to be affected by beryllium were workers employed by Brush and who had frequent exposure to the toxic dust.

After The Blade's recent investigative series on the beryllium industry, several area companies under contract with Brush Wellman, such as construction and engineering firms, started giving blood tests to their workers to see if they have been affected, too.

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 1 in 12 - is similar to that found among Brush employees. Testing of contract workers is expected to continue for some time.

A blood abnormality does not mean that a worker has beryllium disease; rather, 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 spokesman Hugh Hanes would not comment yesterday. The company has repeatedly said it adequately warns contractors about the hazards of beryllium.

An estimated 1,200 people have contracted the illness nationwide since the 1940s, including many in defense-related industries; dozens of other workers show abnormal blood tests.

A list of area contractors with affected workers was not available. But Rudolph/Libbe Companies, a Walbridge construction firm, reports that one of its employees showed a blood abnormality. The firm plans to contact hundreds of its current and former workers and offer blood tests.

Sponseller Group, Inc., an engineering company in Holland, O., recently severed ties with Brush Wellman after a Sponseller employee showed an abnormal blood test.

In March, The Blade began publishing a six-part series detailing how the U.S. defense establishment sacrificed workers' lives for production of beryllium. The series sparked two congressional investigations and was instrumental in the Clinton administration creating a plan to compensate beryllium victims.

The plan, announced in July, would provide benefits to federal contract workers with beryllium disease or blood abnormalities, including employees of companies supplying beryllium to the government, such as Brush.

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

U.S. Energy Department spokesman Jeff Sherwood said "the intent of this proposal is to help any worker" harmed by beryllium at Energy Department operations or suppliers.

Rep. Kanjorski and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) ensured that the plan, which must be approved by Congress, would cover Brush contractors and subcontractors.

"These workers received little acknowledgment or compensation for illnesses contracted on the job," Miss Kaptur said. "Our compensation proposal will help remedy this failure and ensure that our nation does what is morally right."

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