Eleven more workers fall ill in four months
October 9, 1999
Worker illness at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant outside Elmore continues to escalate.
In the last four months, 11 more workers have been diagnosed with beryllium disease, an incurable, often-fatal lung illness caused by the metal's dust.
A total of 64 workers have now contracted the disease at the plant since the 1950s.
Cleveland-based Brush Wellman called the new cases "deeply regrettable" and announced increased medical testing to better monitor employee health.
Victim advocates said that is not enough and that Brush should take steps to stop the disease from occurring once and for all.
"If they are not changing the way they are doing business, we are going to keep finding cases," said advocate Theresa Norgard, whose husband, David, is a Brush employee with beryllium disease.
She called on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to crack down on Brush. "Enough of OSHA sitting on their hands," she said. "We're finding disease cases left and right here."
Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal used in the defense, automotive, and electronics industries and whose dust can cause a chronic illness that eats away at the lungs. Experts estimate 1,200 cases nationwide, with most illnesses occurring in the beryllium or defense industries in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Tennessee, and Arizona.
In March, The Blade began a series on how government and industry officials risked worker health for production of the metal. Since then, Brush Wellman, America's leading producer of beryllium, has drawn fire from victims and environmentalists.
The company announced new safeguards in June, including the increased use of respirators, but workers have continued to be diagnosed with beryllium disease. Brush spokesman Hugh Hanes said yesterday that those cases were likely caused by exposure to beryllium prior to the implementation of some safeguards. Other improvements, he said, are not complete.
The new illnesses were discovered during ongoing medical testing by Brush. More than 500 workers at the Elmore plant, 20 miles southeast of Toledo, have been given blood tests this year.
Brush said many recently discovered cases have been found using new, more sensitive testing techniques. Had older techniques been used, many of these cases - some which show no visible signs of illness - would have gone undetected, the firm said.
Mr. Hanes said Brush has started a new blood-testing program to better monitor workers at the Elmore plant - the nation's largest beryllium factory and the Brush facility with the most known cases of the disease.
Employees will be given blood tests upon joining the firm and additional tests three, six, and 12 months after hiring, and every two years after that. Before, Brush did not offer regular blood tests, which became a medically accepted practice in the early 1990s.
In addition to beryllium disease, recent testing identified 38 more workers with blood abnormalities.
An abnormal blood test does not mean that a worker has beryllium disease; rather, the body shows an allergic-like reaction to beryllium dust. But experts believe a large percentage of those with blood abnormalities will eventually develop the illness.
The company noted one confusing finding: 10 of 18 employees who had shown blood abnormalities in testing several years ago tested negative in the recent survey.
Mr. Hanes said Brush could not explain the discrepancies and viewed them as relatively insignificant. The affected workers, he said, will be retested.
Brush would not release figures on how many workers show blood abnormalities, saying it wants to wait until testing is complete next year.
Ms. Norgard said Brush should tell the public now. "If these guys are such good neighbors, then what's the big secret?"
She added that Brush has had years to stop beryllium disease. "I think OSHA right now needs to look at Brush Wellman and say enough is enough."
OSHA officials have been inspecting the Elmore plant since June, and the inquiry will continue for several more weeks, said Arnis Andersons, director of OSHA's Toledo area office.
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