Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Beryllium--deadly element


"July 15, 1999: Hey, Sorry About the Beryllium Poisoning"


Randy Alfred

July 15th, 2009


1999: After five decades of denial, the U.S. government owns up to poisoning thousands of defense, aerospace and atomic energy workers by exposing them to beryllium. President Bill Clinton asks Congress to enact legislation to compensate the sickened workers and their survivors.

The element beryllium (Be, atomic number 4) is a Group 2 alkaline earth metal, the lightest of the family that includes magnesium, calcium, strontium, barium and radium. Because of its low weight, high melting point, resistance to corrosion, great strength and good electrical conductivity, it’s widely used in electronics, aerospace, atomic energy and defense. Other applications are in precision machining and die casting, molding plastics, and making dental plates and X-ray tubes.

Short-term exposure causes acute beryllium disease, which causes skin irritation and inflammation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

Long-term exposure, even in minute amounts, can result in chronic beryllium disease, mainly affecting the lungs. CBD may take anywhere from 10 to 25 years after exposure to develop. The debilitating syndrome is characterized by shortness of breath on physical activity, persistent dry cough, fatigue, night sweats, chest and joint pain, loss of appetite … and death.

As many as 26,000 workers may have been exposed to beryllium in the preceding half-century, and officials expected to deal with 500 to 1,000 cases of CBD. Many were not previously eligible for federal benefits because they worked for contractors rather than directly for the federal government, which fought them tooth and nail on the matter of worker compensation. Because their disease often took a decade or more to develop, they were also denied state benefits.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced the turnabout: "It's time to stop spending money litigating against these workers and focus our efforts on getting them the help they need."

Some victims were still bitter. A former employee of the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, nuclear-weapons site summed up his feelings: "I do feel anger. I feel more anger because there has been so much stalling up until today."

Congress passed and the president signed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act in 2000. The program was augmented in 2001 and 2004 and now covers illnesses caused by chronic silicosis (from working in nuclear-fuel mines) and radiation and, as well as CBD.

The Department of Labor said earlier this month that it has paid almost $5 billion in compensation and medical benefits under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program to 51,331 claimants across the country.

But former workers still complain of government foot-dragging. They say the pace is too slow and that they must jump through one bureaucratic hoop after another to receive compensation for CBD. With the aid of law firms, they've formed support networks and advocacy groups to speed the process and increase the percentage of claims approved by the government.

Now, the American Institute of Physics has an interesting article in the June 1949 issue of Physics World called "Beryllium Poisoning"...

Beryllium has unique and advantageous properties which make its use imperative in nuclear physics, nuclear reactor technology, metallurgy, and in industry. But there is danger in its use, for beryllium and its compounds have toxic properties and disease-producing potentialities which have not been widely recognized.--Robert I. Hasterlik

For some reason the item has been removed from their archives. And do to physical and legal issues I cannot reproduce the article. However, if you are interested, just provide an email address [which won't be published] and I will email a copy.


Beryllium Support Group

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