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June 28, 2001

 





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Article published June 28, 2001

Regional News
Neighbors ask feds to test air near Brush
Residents don’t want to rely on firm’s data

BY KELLY LECKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER


ELMORE - Bernadette Eriksen urged a federal health agency last night to find out on its own whether beryllium is escaping the Brush Wellman plant and affecting nearby residents.

"Don’t just trust their air monitor. It’s run by Brush Wellman. It’s checked by Brush Wellman," she said. "I don’t trust them."

Ms. Eriksen joined former Brush workers and community residents last night to tell members of a federal health agency their fears or concerns about beryllium exposure.

About 30 people showed up initially, and others trickled in during the three-hour open house. The few who spoke as the meeting began urged officials to find them definitive answers.

The Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is investigating whether people living near the beryllium plant near here - Brush Wellman’s largest - face harmful exposure from the facility’s air emissions. It also is looking into whether people were exposed to beryllium carried off the site on workers’ clothing.

The investigation was requested by U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio) in January. The public health agency, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will report its findings and make recommendations when it has completed its investigation, which will take several months.

"We’re here for fact-finding. We haven’t made any sort of health determination," said Peter Kowalski, who is leading the federal team. "We’re concerned. We understand this is a disease that has caused a great deal of tragedy and it’s still occurring."

Beryllium is a metal used to make, among other things, nuclear weapons. Beryllium dust can cause an incurable, sometimes fatal, lung illness when inhaled.

About 1,200 people nationwide have contracted beryllium disease since the 1940s, including current and former workers at the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore.

Several people at last night’s meeting worked at Brush Wellman and have chronic beryllium disease. Others lived near the plant.

Bob Szilagyi, a Brush Wellman worker from Oak Harbor, urged the investigators to focus on determining how much beryllium is in the air.

"You could find beryllium in cars or in people’s carpets, but it’s the stuff that’s in the air that causes the sickness," he said.

David Beckley of Clyde, a Brush worker who filed suit against Brush Wellman because he has chronic beryllium disease, said the workers’ illnesses should be proof enough something has to be done.

"We have so many sick people out at Brush Wellman. Isn’t that enough to say ‘Hey, something’s wrong?’" he asked.

Ohio Citizen Action, the state’s largest environmental group, conducted a study late last year and said it found beryllium residue outside the plant, on cars and in the homes of workers, and on an automobile owned by a nearby resident. The organization demanded blood tests for neighbors to see if they had been exposed to beryllium. The company has insisted the testing is not necessary.

Ohio Citizen Action met with officials from the federal health agency yesterday afternoon. Amy Ryder, citizen action’s Cleveland director, said the agency plans to use Ohio EPA data to see if residents are at risk.

"We’ve asked them to not make that determination, because we don’t think they can," she said. Last night, Mr. Kowalski said the agency could do its own testing if the data available is inadequate.

Patrick Carpenter, a Brush Wellman spokesman, said the company has gone to great lengths to keep the beryllium inside the plant, and said monitors show the beryllium in the air outside the plant is much lower than the EPA standard of 0.01 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

The health agency will meet with Brush Wellman officials today to gather information from the company.

Ms. Ryder had asked the federal disease registry to do its own independent sampling, a larger study than the one Ohio Citizen Action did last year.

She pointed to an incident in February, when beryllium dust escaped from a barrel outside a Brush Wellman complex into a residential area, as a reason residents should be concerned about being exposed to the beryllium.

After the incident, the Ohio EPA appointed investigator Mike Czeczele as the contact person for matters concerning Brush Wellman.

Last night, he told the crowd the Ohio EPA plans to install three air monitors and do independent sampling of the air leaving the plant. He said investigators sampled water from eight nearby homes to see whether it was contaminated by beryllium. The results, he said, are not available yet.

People who could not attend last night’s meeting can call the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta or Chicago, or can write the agency.

A Blade investigative series in 1999 documented a 50-year pattern of misconduct by the federal government and the beryllium industry. Among the findings: Government and industry officials knowingly allowed workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust. The series sparked major safety reforms.


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