Beryllium tragedy strikes Oak Harbor family again

October 24, 1999

Gary Renwand warned his son not to make the same mistakes as he had: Don't continue working at the Brush Wellman beryllium plant. Don't risk your life. Don't end up like me - battling beryllium lung disease and tethered to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day.

But his son didn't listen.

Now, Gary Jr., like his father, has been diagnosed with the often-fatal illness.

Toledo Blade photo by Taya Kashuba
Beryllium victim Gary Renwand, Sr., cried when he learned his son Gary Jr., left, has the disease.
(Toledo Blade photo by Taya Kashuba)
"I'm just kind of numb right now," said Gary Jr., a machinist at the plant. "I see where my father is at with this disease, and I wonder if I will get to that point."

Gary Jr., a 42-year-old from Oak Harbor, O., learned last week that he has beryllium disease, a progressive, incurable illness caused by inhaling the metal's dust. Father and son contracted the disease at the Brush Wellman plant outside Elmore, where 65 current or former employees have fallen ill.

The Renwands are believed to be the company's first father and son victims.

The elder Renwand, 61, whose lungs are so damaged that he cannot go anywhere without a portable oxygen tank, said he cried when he learned that his son has the disease.

"I know what he's going to have to go through," he said.

In March, an investigation by The Blade detailed the hazards of beryllium and how U.S. defense officials and the beryllium industry repeatedly put production of the valuable metal ahead of worker safety. The series sparked numerous reforms and actions, including two congressional investigations to determine who is at fault for a disease that has struck 1,200 workers nationwide.

Hugh Hanes, spokesman for Cleveland-based Brush Wellman, America's leading beryllium producer, said: "Obviously, our thoughts are with Gary and his family. Despite this diagnosis, we hope that he will maintain his health for years in the future."

Unlike his father, Gary Jr. is not visibly ill. But the stocky man with short blond hair reports some shortness of breath.

Both Renwands said that Brush did not adequately warn them of the dangers of beryllium, which is used in the defense, automotive, and electronics industries. The Blade series found that Brush has repeatedly misled workers, federal regulators, and the public about the hazards, but the firm said it has always disclosed the dangers, based on the scientific knowledge at the time.

Gary Jr. said that he continued working at Brush, even after his father became ill, because he was going through a divorce and needed the money. Plus, he said, "you put 20-some years in a place, you don't want to throw it away."

For the Renwands, Brush's sprawling Elmore plant, 20 miles southeast of Toledo, has been important to their lives for two generations. Four of Gary Sr.'s six children have been employed there, and two sons, Gary Jr. and Dave, still are.

Sitting in his modest Oak Harbor home, where two dozen family photographs hang on the living room walls, Gary Sr. recalled how he started at the beryllium plant in the 1950s, making material for nuclear warheads and, in the 1960s, re-entry shields for America's space capsules.

He helped Gary Jr. get a job at the plant when his son was 21. Both were machinists, and neither had many complaints. But in 1993, the elder Renwand was diagnosed with beryllium disease. Company records show he was frequently exposed to high levels of beryllium dust - some amounts five times the federal safety limit.

He quit work and urged his son to leave too. But Gary Jr. decided to stay.

Earlier this year, a routine medical test found that Gary Jr. had a blood abnormality. Further tests confirmed the worst: He had beryllium disease.

"You think about your life," he said, "and how much you have to live and how much will be taken away from it."

Experts say beryllium disease affects people differently. A third die of the disease, a third become disabled, and a third remain relatively healthy.

Gary Jr., who is divorced and lives with his two adult children, said he does not know if he will remain a Brush employee. He is off work, studying options under a company program for ill workers.

He said he does not want to work inside the plant again, and he warns current Brush workers not to think that the disease won't strike them.

"That's what I thought too."


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