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Safety watchdog says beryllium rule 'a guess'

Lawsuit testimony indicates scientific research was lacking

By Ann Imse, News Staff Writer

For decades, beryllium workers were told they were safe working in less than 2 micrograms of the metal per cubic meter of air -- even though there was no scientific research to back that up.

That was the initial testimony in a trial in Jefferson County Tuesday, where about 50 workers from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant are suing Brush Wellman Inc. of Cleveland for allegedly conspiring with the government to hide the harmful effects of beryllium. Breathing beryllium dust can cause chronic beryllium disease, a wasting, generally fatal lung ailment, the court was told.

Retired Brush Wellman executive Martin Powers testified by videotape that the 2-microgram standard was only "a guess."

Powers was responsible for monitoring safety in the Brush factories and for writing warnings to customers.

Power said the only evidence for the 2-microgram standard was the fact that after it was adopted in 1949, "the disease appeared to have disappeared."

But under questioning, Powers admitted that some Brush Wellman employees continued to succumb to chronic beryllium disease. He said some were exposed to more than 2 micrograms in accidents.

The plaintiffs' attorneys presented Atomic Energy Commission documents to the jury dating to 1946 -- classified as secret for decades -- in which officials worried about possible damage to beryllium production that could be caused by publicity about beryllium illness. Because the AEC needed beryllium to make nuclear bombs, "the AEC appears stuck with the public relations problem," the document said.

Another once-secret AEC document said that before any document was declassified, information that would support claims for beryllium disease damage should be deleted.

A Brush attorney responded that Brush had no knowledge of these secret documents, and pointed to another 1947 letter in which the company suggested that the U.S. Public Health Service research beryllium's effects.

June 6, 2001

 
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