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Doctor: Flats illness was preventable

Brush knew of beryllium problems in '51, internal records show

By Stacie Oulton
Denver Post Staff Writer

Sunday, June 17, 2001 - GOLDEN - If Brush Wellman Inc., the world's leading producer of beryllium, had revealed 50 years ago that its workers were becoming sick, it would have prevented hundreds of other illnesses, a nationally prominent Denver doctor testified Friday.

Lew Newman, a researcher in the field of chronic beryllium disease at National Jewish Medical and Research Center, served as an expert witness for four Rocky Flats workers who contracted the disease and are suing Brush.

Newman said he treats many workers of the former nuclear plant and others who have chronic beryllium disease, a lung ailment that can be fatal. Many of those patients "would not be receiving the bad news today" that they have the disease if the company had been forthcoming, he said.

The company never told anyone that the workers at its production plants were becoming sick, even though exposure to the metal's dust was below the federal safety standard. But internal company documents revealed during the lawsuit indicate that the company knew it had the problem in 1951.

Brush's co-founder, Bengt Kjellgren, who was company president in 1951, wrote in his diary that "our records show" that practically all of the sickened workers that year had been exposed to dust levels below the federal safety standard.

"That would have been very important information to be sharing," Newman said.

It would have had a "dramatic effect" on how the toxic dust would have been regulated and managed over the past 50 years, he said.

He also said that if the federal standard had been reduced significantly in the 1970s, as the government had proposed, there would have been less risk to workers and fewer exposures. Brush fought and successfully stopped the tougher standards with the help of the Department of Energy and politicians.

The suit filed in Jefferson County alleges the company covered up information and conspired with the federal government to censor what was published in medical and scientific literature. The company and government didn't want damaging information to get out because they wanted to keep Brush in business and the metal flowing to nuclear weapons production, the workers claim.

Brush has countered that several articles and government reports acknowledged the federal standard might not protect all workers and that it was debated for decades.

But Newman testified that statements by Brush's medical director and others supporting the company in the medical literature had the most impact on what people and the federal government believed.

"The kind of thing (they) were saying or publishing, this has been the dominant force in shaping opinion about the hazards of beryllium," Newman said.

One company's medical director said in several publications that workers had to be exposed to dust or fumes 20 times the safety level to become sick. Another expert for the Rocky Flats workers has testified those statements were a lie.

Brush has also tried to portray Rocky Flats as a shoddily run operation that exposed workers to high levels of the toxic dust. But Newman said the four workers faced only low levels of exposure and would have contracted the disease anyway. The four most likely have a gene that makes them hypersensitive to the metal.


 

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