For First Time In 40 Years National Jewish Researchers Report Chronic Beryllium Disease Caused By Extremely Low Levels Of Exposure

April 19, 1999

DENVER-Exposure to extremely low levels of a lightweight metal commonly used to make everything from nuclear weapons to golf clubs has been shown to cause chronic beryllium disease (CBD) in workers who manufacture these products, according to National Jewish Medical and Research Center physicians.

Investigators at National Jewish reported cases of CBD occurring in two people working with 2 percent beryllium copper alloy, according to the current issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. CBD caused by 2 percent beryllium copper alloy was last described in the U.S. medical literature more than 40 years ago.

"From the 1930s to the present, there have been people in industry and academics who have implied that these types of alloys with less than 2 percent beryllium content are safe," said Ron Balkissoon, M.D., an author of the article and a member of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences at National Jewish.

Beryllium copper alloy, commonly containing 1 percent-2 percent beryllium metal, is used in a variety of products such as toasters, bicycles and electronics because it is lightweight, very strong and conducts electricity without overheating.

"Today, beryllium is finding its way into a number of non-military applications," Dr. Balkissoon said. "Now its use is more widespread in the industrial and commercial manufacturing sectors." Traditionally, beryllium was used in the nuclear industry.

Since the 1940s, it has been assumed that machining beryllium copper alloy of 1 percent-2 percent is safe because the concentration of beryllium is so low.

"The potential health risk has been underestimated because the low level of beryllium content has been trivialized," Dr. Balkissoon said. "Anything that has some beryllium content may cause chronic beryllium disease. Even very low level exposure in a susceptible person can lead to significant lung disease."

CBD occurs when beryllium dust is inhaled into the lungs. The body's immune system attacks and attempts to breakdown the beryllium, but in doing so causes lung scarring, known as granulomas. The scarring causes the lungs to stiffen, making it difficult to take a deep breath and interfering with the transfer of oxygen from the lungs to the blood stream.

For more information about beryllium disease, call LUNG LINE, 800-222-LUNG.
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National Jewish Health

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