US recycling workers at risk of fatal lung disease

A newspaper investigation has revealed that thousands of Americans working in the recycling, electronics, machining and dental industries are at risk of developing beryllium disease because companies have exposed them to the highly toxic metal without adequate safeguards or warnings.

The Chicago Tribune says that beryllium, whose toxic dust slowly damages lungs and which was once primarily used in the defence industry, is now increasingly found in industry because of its light weight and superior strength. The newspaper says that the metal has already claimed victims: In Florida, a dental lab worker developed beryllium disease after grinding crowns and bridges containing the metal; in Texas, a Salvadoran immigrant died of the illness after working at a metal recycling company; and in Illinois a machinist contracted the disease at a small foundry.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires workplace warnings on beryllium and places limits on beryllium dust exposure. Although it also has voluntary guidelines recommending that every company handling the metal regularly monitors its air for beryllium dust, provides employees with work clothes and showers, and offers medical testing to any worker potentially exposed, companies are ignoring these rules and guidelines, and the government is not enforcing its laws, the newspaper says.

The Chicago Tribune says its investigation was based on thousands of court, industry and government documents and dozens of interviews with health officials and business owners. Among the most significant findings are:

  • interviews with company officials show that many businesses across the country are not taking basic precautions, such as air monitoring, to protect workers, with a spot-check of 30 businesses working with beryllium discovering that none was following all of OSHA’s recommended safeguards;
  • warnings from beryllium manufacturers and distributors are often inaccurate, misleading and incomplete, with nine out of 10 warnings reviewed by the newspaper, failing to abide by OSHA rules and four failing to even mention beryllium disease;
  • OSHA rarely inspects companies handling beryllium and several Chicago-area businesses working with the metal have not been inspected in 10 years; and
  • thousands of firms use beryllium, but only a small fraction have provided workers with blood tests to detect possible harm, according to laboratories that analyse the tests. Health officials recommend blood testing so the incurable illness can be detected early, and treatment can attempt to limit lung damage.

Even for experienced industrial hygienists and engineers, protecting workers who use beryllium is difficult, with 165 Department of Energy workers having been diagnosed with the disease since testing began in the 1980s, and after millions of dollars spent at weapons facilities to protect workers, including extensive air sampling and ventilation. David Michaels, the top health official in the Energy Department during the Clinton administration, is quoted as saying that he thinks it is virtually impossible for small companies with limited resources to adequately protect workers and calls for a ban on beryllium, except for national security purposes.

Even though beryllium is one of the most toxic substances used in the workplace, no one knows precisely how many companies use the metal, how many workers are exposed, how many have the disease nor how many have died. However, Peter Infante, OSHA’s director of the Office of Standards Review, has called beryllium dust “one of the most frightening toxic exposures you could experience in the workplace today”, and said if companies don’t follow the agency’s guidelines then “they are unnecessarily putting workers at risk of developing a fatal disease”.

One of the industries which poses most risks to workers is metal recycling, as beryllium dust or fumes may be released when computers, telephones and other scrap are burned, crushed or melted. David Bustos, who loads electronic scrap, is one of several workers to have contracted beryllium disease, which has a fatality rate of about one third. El Salvadorean immigrant, Ramon Ventura, recently died of the disease after working at Ireland Alloys, a scrap metal recycler in Houston.

However, Brush Wellman Inc., the US’ leading beryllium producer with around 7,000 customers nationwide, disputes Michaels’ assessment. “Many customers both large and small have safely used beryllium-containing materials over the years,” the company said. “We believe it is unfair for anyone to assume that just because a company is small that it is unwilling or unable to provide adequate resources to protect its workers.”

Despite Brush Wellman spending millions of dollars trying to protect its employees, at its main plant outside Toledo, Ohio, at least 25 workers have been diagnosed with the disease since 1999, according to previous statements by the firm. Company documents filed with OSHA indicate that in the past 10 years, about 110 of its workers have been diagnosed with beryllium disease.

Meanwhile, OSHA’s deputy director of health standards, William Perry, said he thinks the agency has done a good job protecting beryllium workers, enforcing its rules, keeping abreast of new research and, in 1999, publishing guidelines on its correct handling. However, he said that increasing inspections would be difficult because OSHA only has about 2,400 inspectors to cover 6.9 million work sites.

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