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Beryllium report attacked in court

Ex-Rocky Flats workers say firm's medical director misrepresented the cause of chronic disease in 1983

By Ann Imse, News Staff Writer

The medical director of the nation's only beryllium producer misrepresented in a scientific publication the cause of chronic beryllium disease suffered by 11 neighbors of a company factory, according to evidence presented in Jefferson County District Court on Monday.

Former Rocky Flats workers are suing Brush Wellman Inc. of Cleveland, Ohio, claiming it conspired with the government to hide the dangers of beryllium used in manufacturing nuclear weapons.

On Monday, their attorneys presented a scientific publication authored in 1983 by Dr. Otto Preuss, medical director of Brush Wellman. Preuss reported that all neighbors of the company factory in Lorain, Ohio, who became ill had been in contact with the beryllium-contaminated clothing of workers.

In fact, only one of the 11 sick neighbors had washed clothing, according to testimony from Merril Eisenbud, the industrial hygienist who conducted the study 50 years ago. Testimony from Eisenbud read to the jury said he calculated the neighbors had been exposed by air to only about 0.1 to 1 microgram per cubic meter of air, substantially less than the 2 micrograms still set as the maximum safe exposure today.

Eisenbud also testified that he and a colleague created the 2-microgram standard merely to help the designer of a new beryllium machine shop in 1949. Although they had given it weeks of thought, the two men settled on 2 micrograms instead of 5 micrograms during a taxi ride to the machine-shop site on Long Island.

"I never thought I'd be defending it 50 years later," said Eisenbud.

Asked if there was an "epidemiological basis" for the 2-microgram standard, Eisenbud, an engineer by training, answered, "No."

About 50 people are suing Brush Wellman. The hearing is focusing on four workers to decide whether Brush Wellman is liable before the court goes into the details of the other workers' exposure and illness.

Attorneys for Brush Wellman won admissions from Eisenbud that in the early 1980s, he did think the 2-microgram standard protected workers because the number of cases had dropped off dramatically.

But Eisenbud said he then reviewed the case registry and found too many victims in whom the exposure could have been less, including about a dozen secretaries.

Then the number of cases jumped again, perhaps due to more sophisticated diagnosis, he said.

Eisenbud also testified that Brush Wellman executives were very cooperative in researching the effect of beryllium exposure during his original studies in the 1940s.

Plaintiffs presented an internal Brush Wellman memo from 1981 stating that more industries would use beryllium if not for its toxicity.

The memo from R.A. Foos goes on to say the company had been fighting for three to five years to fend off a "gross, detrimental and unreasonable standard" for exposure. That proposal from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter.

The workers' attorneys provided additional evidence that Defense and Energy department officials shut down that OSHA attempt.

They presented a Brush Wellman letter detailing a deal in which "DOE and DOD would exert their best efforts to have OSHA reconsider its proposed unrealistic beryllium standard." Brush Wellman agreed not to quit the business abruptly and leave Rocky Flats without a critical ingredient for nuclear weapons.

June 12, 2001

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