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August 02, 2002


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Environment | Article published Friday, August 2, 2002
Study: Beryllium dust not hazard
Brush Wellman’s neighbors are worried


ELMORE, Ohio - Beryllium dust escaping in the air near the Brush Wellman plant and in well water does not pose a health hazard to neighbors, according to a federal health agency.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry also looked into possible health issues from beryllium dust leaving the plant on workers’ clothes. It could not determine whether that dust would harm area residents but said it plans to test the homes of workers for beryllium dust.

Brush Wellman spokesman Patrick Carpenter said the company was pleased with the findings.

"It confirms what we’ve said all along," he said. "Perhaps most important of all are ATSDR’s conclusions about the safety of living near Brush Wellman.’’

Bernadette Eriksen, who lives near the plant, said she’s angry the agency didn’t test people near the plant or do their own air sampling.

"I never saw them out here testing any air. I never heard anyone questioning the neighbors. I just think based on the evidence I saw it’s being brushed under the rug again," she said.

The public health agency, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will have two public hearings Wednesday to release the results of the study to residents. The meetings will be from 2 to 4 and from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Elmore Community Center, 410 Clinton St.

Residents have been saying for years that they feared beryllium dust was escaping from the plant and endangering their health.

Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal used in the defense, automotive, and electronic industries. It is used to make, among other things, nuclear bombs.

Beryllium dust can cause chronic and sometimes fatal lung problems for those who inhale it. About 1,200 people nationwide have contracted beryllium disease, a fatal lung ailment, since the 1940s, including at least 75 current or former workers at the Brush Wellman plant near Elmore.

The federal health agency studied Brush Wellman and the area around the plant on the request of Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio).

Investigators did not conduct air sampling of their own, but instead reviewed records from Brush Wellman and state agencies like the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Critics have said the health agency should have done its own testing.

Amy Ryder, Cleveland director of the environmental group Ohio Citizen Action, had asked that the Atlanta-based health agency do its own testing to determine whether beryllium dust was harming neighbors. Yesterday she said she was pleased with the results of the study. Citizen Action tested workers’ and neighbors’ homes two years ago and said it found beryllium.

"They’re going to do a more wide-scale basis," she said.

Based on the existing information, air emissions of beryllium are below levels believed to cause problems and they do not pose a health hazard, said Peter Kowalski, the toxic registry agency’s environmental health scientist. The conclusion is based on 30-day averages over several years. The agency cannot say whether there was a health danger during certain incidents, like when a smoke cloud was released in a chemical reaction Feb. 15 and the air levels were higher than average.

There is not enough information for the registry agency to tell if beryllium dust is going home with workers, and if that is harmful, so the agency labeled it an "indeterminate public health hazard." It also recommended that its own investigators test workers’ homes.

"In order for chronic beryllium disease to occur there has to be some level of exposure, even if we don’t know what that is," Mr. Kowalski said. "We will be testing dust and possibly air samples."

There are health standards for the amount of beryllium that should be allowed in the air but there are not studies on how much beryllium in solid form is dangerous. Because of this, Mr. Kowalski said the agency won’t be able to tell residents if the amount it finds is dangerous. He said there is just not enough information.

What the testing will tell them is whether Brush Wellman is doing an adequate job of making sure beryllium dust stays on site and doesn’t go home with the workers, Mr. Kowalski said.

Mr. Carpenter of Brush Wellman said the company feels the federal agency’s study won’t give them any more information about safety issues - because there are no safety standards for solid beryllium - and said the plant does a good job of keeping beryllium onsite.

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