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June 27, 2001


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Article published June 27, 2001

Regional News
Health agency looks at reported beryllium hazard


ELMORE - Members of a federal public health agency plan to meet with residents living near the Brush Wellman plant today as part of an investigation into whether beryllium could harm them.

The Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry also is meeting today with officials from Ohio Citizen Action, a group that says it found beryllium in homes outside the plant, and tomorrow with Brush officials, who argue they have taken great lengths to protect the public and keep beryllium inside the plant.

"We welcome their visit, we welcome their study, and we welcome their interest," Brush spokesman Patrick Carpenter said, adding that he is confident the study will find there is no danger.

The federal agency, which is an organization within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will not have a public hearing. Instead, officials will be at the Elmore Community Center from 6 to 9 p.m. to listen to any resident who wants to talk to them about their health concerns related to beryllium.

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 health agency will investigate whether air emissions from the beryllium plant pose any threat to community members and whether there have been health hazards in the past from beryllium carried out of the plant on workers’ clothes.

Ohio Citizen Action conducted a small study of homes and cars near the plant and said it found beryllium residue in five of the six workers’ houses and three workers’ cars, and that it also found beryllium residue on the car of a resident who did not work at the plant.

The group has been pushing for testing of area residents, a move the company has insisted is not necessary.

Brush Wellman denied the environmental organization’s claims that beryllium was leaving the plant and questioned the validity of way the study was handled.

Amy Ryder, Ohio Citizen Action’s Cleveland director, said there is a need for the federal health agency not only to talk to residents, but to take independent samples from area homes.

"We are not alarmists. I would never go out and say the whole town is in danger. But I would say there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation," she said. "What is most important is that this becomes a project that the ATSDR does with the community, and just the community. This is not a project that should include Brush Wellman."

Clayton Koher, a regional representative for the disease registry in Chicago, said investigators have been collecting data from environmental agencies to determine whether there are harmful air emissions from the plant.

Ohio Citizen Action requested that the agency test the air and test area homes. Mr Koher said investigators could decide to do its own sampling, but usually they use the data available from environmental agencies.

"We are not the primary collector of that data. Our agency’s job is to collect data from environmental arms," Mr. Koher said. "We are a health agency."

The disease registry is coming to Elmore at the request of U.S. Senator Mike DeWine (R. Ohio). The senator asked that the federal agency look into whether there were health hazards last year, but got no response. His office renewed its request in January.

The agency is the federal public health agency for hazardous waste issues and will take the lead in the investigation, with help from the Ohio Department of Health. When its investigation into the Elmore plant is finished, officials will release their findings and recommendations to correct any health risks.

The federal health agency is not a regulatory body. Instead, it recommends action to regulators, including the state and federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Mr. Carpenter of Brush Wellman said the company constantly monitors the air around the plant and said the level of beryllium is typically 10 times to 100 times lower than the EPA standard.

"Stated differently, this is the equivalent of crumbling up a brick and distributing it through a 10-foot high air space above the state of Ohio," he said in a statement.

Brush’s critics say any exposure to beryllium is too much. Ms. Ryder said it should be left up to an independent agency like this public health body to determine whether residents are in danger.

"They need to do significant sampling," she said.

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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