April 23, 2002

Mostly Cloudy

 Please register or log in | Member services
Story search: Last 7 days
Older than 7 days
Weather / Traffic
Shopping center
Special sections
News / HomeYou are here
Editorials & Opinion
Voice of the People
Steve Chapman
Bob Greene
John Kass
Clarence Page
Mary Schmich
Dawn Turner Trice
Don Wycliff
Eric Zorn
Special reports
Community info
Customer service

Special reports
2001 School Report Card

All special reports

Top news headlines

Update: Pope backs removal of abusive priests

Update: Train crash kills 2 in California

New: Rep. Crane released from hospital

New: Police seek 16-year-old's shooter

New: Body recovered from Lake Michigan

Dental labs get beryllium alert
OSHA warns that toxic metal poses threat to workers

E-mail this story
Printer-friendly format
Search archives

How beryllium can affect dental industry (Chicago Tribune)
April 23, 2002

By Sam Roe
Tribune staff reporter
Published April 23, 2002

In a rare move, federal regulators are warning thousands of dental laboratories that they might be exposing workers to harmful levels of beryllium, a highly toxic metal used in the production of crowns and bridges.

The warning, to be issued Tuesday in the form of a health hazard bulletin, states that several dental lab technicians have contracted a potentially fatal lung disease after inhaling tiny amounts of beryllium dust.


AirTran Airways


America's dental labs "should certainly not be complacent," said John Henshaw, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is issuing the warning. "They should be very alert at how the material may be in the air and then take the precautions to avoid inhalation."

The Tribune reported last year that dental labs across the nation were using materials containing beryllium without proper safeguards, such as respirators.

OSHA said it would mail the nine-page warning to dental labs and post it on the agency's Web site. There are about 7,300 dental labs and 42,000 dental technicians nationwide, U.S. census statistics show. The number of labs using beryllium is not known, but a Tribune spot check of 31 in the Chicago area found that 16, or about half, use the metal.

The warning applies only to dental laboratories and not to dental offices unless they cut or grind beryllium, OSHA said. And the risks to patients appear remote: Scientists said they did not know of anyone contracting the disease from having a beryllium crown or bridge in the mouth.

Beryllium is usually associated with the defense industry as the strong, lightweight metal that has been used for decades in nuclear weapons, tanks and missiles. As the Cold War waned, beryllium producers increasingly searched for other markets, including the dental industry.

Small amounts of beryllium are frequently mixed with other metals to improve the strength of crowns and bridges. These beryllium alloys are often cast, ground and polished in dental laboratories, which then sell the finished pieces to dentists.

In solid form, beryllium appears to be safe. But when the metal is cut, polished or otherwise altered, the resulting dust can cause an incurable lung disease. Studies show that about 3 percent of those exposed develop the illness, sometimes decades after their last exposure.

OSHA's hazard bulletin recommends that dental labs use ventilation, respirators and protective clothing to limit beryllium dust exposure. Employers should also regularly test the air and, where possible, use substitutes for beryllium.

Workers with possible symptoms of beryllium disease--coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue--are urged to contact their physicians. Others who are concerned are urged to take a blood test to determine whether they have blood abnormalities linked to the disease. Though beryllium disease is incurable, scientists say early detection allows for treatments that can attempt to limit lung damage.

OSHA cited several scientific reports since 1993 that detailed beryllium disease among dental technicians. One case involves a Florida woman who was diagnosed with the illness in 2000 after working at two dental labs. At one lab she wore only a surgical-type paper mask, which does not prevent beryllium inhalation.

OSHA officials said the agency became concerned about beryllium disease in the dental industry in January 2001, when Dr. Lee Newman of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver informed the agency of a recent case.

"We are definitely seeing beryllium disease--sometimes severe forms of the disease--in dental laboratory technicians," Newman said. "It was time for OSHA to take some action."

OSHA officials also credited the Tribune report and similar research by the environmental group Ohio Citizen Action for demonstrating the need for a hazard bulletin.

The National Association of Dental Laboratories said it would share OSHA's warning with its 1,700 members. President Richard Harrell said the association "wants its members and the industry to have all available information related to potential health hazards."

This is the first hazard bulletin OSHA has issued this year and the seventh in the last three years.

In 1999, OSHA issued a bulletin warning workers that government safety standards might not be protecting them from beryllium dust. The legal limit is 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, equivalent to the amount of dust the size of a pencil tip spread throughout a 6-foot-high box the size of a football field. But several studies have found that workers have contracted the disease at exposures under this amount.

OSHA is studying whether to tighten the legal limit, but the rule-making process could take years.

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune

Home | Copyright and terms of service | Privacy policy | Subscribe | Customer service | Archives | Advertise
Powered by Genuity