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March 19, 2002

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Beryllium tests urged for military workers


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By Sam Roe
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 19, 2002

Several members of Congress are calling for the Department of Defense to test thousands of military personnel who might have been exposed to the highly toxic metal beryllium.

The lawmakers assailed the Pentagon for ignoring federal health guidelines that recommend blood tests for workers exposed to beryllium, a lightweight metal whose dust can cause an often fatal lung disease. Testing in other industries has revealed dozens of illnesses.

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"This is a national disgrace the way the Department of Defense has treated these workers," said Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico.

The Tribune reported this month that beryllium dust has been detected at 73 Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps facilities in 23 states, with some exposure levels twice the federal legal limit.

The Defense Department estimates that 9,513 military and civilian personnel might have been exposed in the last 10 years. The agency said the decision to screen workers rests with doctors at each of its facilities, but military officials said they were unaware of any such testing.

The Pentagon has used beryllium for decades in a variety of applications, including missiles, aircraft brakes and helicopter components. While the Defense Department reports that only one of its workers has developed the disease since the 1940s, studies have long shown that the illness is often misdiagnosed or goes undetected.

Five congressmen contacted by the Tribune said they wanted the Defense Department to take action. They are Udall and Reps. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), Paul Kanjorski (D-Penn.), Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) and Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas).

The lawmakers also said the Defense Department should compensate employees harmed by beryllium and other substances, similar to the way the Energy Department aids ailing workers who were employed at that agency's facilities.

"This is just about doing the right thing," said Gonzalez, whose district includes former workers at the now-closed Kelly Air Force Base, where beryllium was used.

Strickland said officials who say they support U.S. troops overseas should support the right to basic medical care.

"I don't know how we can wave the flag and speak in glowing terms about fighting the war against terrorism" and not screen the military for a potentially fatal disease, he said.

Other lawmakers said they were concerned about beryllium exposure but wanted to investigate further.

The Energy Department, which has used beryllium in nuclear weapons, reported few disease cases until it started screening workers in the early 1990s. The agency has since tested 27,800 workers at 18 facilities, finding 729 people with beryllium disease or blood abnormalities linked to the illness.

The screening is recommended by federal agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Early detection is important because it allows treatments that can attempt to limit lung damage.

Beryllium disease has been found in virtually every industry in which workers have been screened. Studies show that about 3 percent of those exposed to beryllium dust develop the illness, sometimes decades after their last exposure.

Kanjorski said it was important to notify all former workers who worked near beryllium.

"There may be a lot of retired people who don't even know that they had the exposure," he said.

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune


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