Occupational beryllium exposure: Reconciling federal policies, regulations and contractor implementation guides to protect worker health

Michelle Marie Sheffield, The University of Texas School of Public Health


Beryllium is a widely distributed, highly toxic metal. When beryllium particulates enter the body, the body's defense mechanisms are engaged. When the body's defenses cannot easily remove the particulates, then a damage and repair cycle is initiated. This cycle produces chronic beryllium disease (CBD), a progressive, fibrotic respiratory involvement which eventually suffocates exposed individuals. Beryllium disease is an occupational disease, and as such it can be prevented by limiting exposures. In the 1940s journalists reported beryllium deaths at Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) facilities, the Department of Energy's (DOE) predecessor organization. These reports energized public pressure for exposure limits, and in 1949 AEC implemented a 2 μg/m3 permissible exposure limit (PEL). The limits appeared to stop acute disease. In contrast, CBD has a long latency period between exposure and diagnosable disease, between one and thirty years. The lack of immediate adverse health consequences masked the seriousness of chronic disease and pragmatically removed CBD from AEC/DOE's political concern. Presently the PEL for beryllium at DOE sites remains at 2 μg/m 3. This limit does not prevent CBD. This conclusion has long been known, although denied until recently. In 1999 DOE acknowledged the limit's ineffectiveness in its federal regulation governing beryllium exposure, 10 CFR 850. Despite this admission, the PEL has not been reduced. The beryllium manufacturer and AEC/DOE have a history of exerting efforts to maintain and protect the status quo. Primary amongst these efforts has been creation and promotion of disinformation within peer reviewed health literature which discusses beryllium, exposures, health effects and treatment, and targeting graduate school students so that their perspective is shaped early. Once indoctrinated with incorrect information, professionals tend to overlook aerosol and respiratory mechanics, immunologic and carcinogenic factors. They then apply tools and perspectives derived from the beryllium manufacturer and DOE's propaganda. Conclusions drawn are incorrect. The result is: health research and associated policy is conducted with incorrect premises. Effective disease management practices are not implemented. Public health protection requires recognition of the disinformation and its implications. When disinformation is identified, then effective health policies and practices can be developed and implemented.

Subject Area

Occupational safety|Public health

Recommended Citation

Sheffield, Michelle Marie, "Occupational beryllium exposure: Reconciling federal policies, regulations and contractor implementation guides to protect worker health" (2004). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3143617.