December 8, 1999

Energy Dept. Will Cut Standard for Its Workers' Exposure to a Metal Tied to Lung Disease

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    WASHINGTON -- The standard set by government nuclear bomb makers 50 years ago for exposure to beryllium, a metal once used almost exclusively in nuclear weapons but now common in golf clubs and cars, has made scores of workers sick with a chronic lung disease, and the Energy Department will announce a rule on Wednesday sharply cutting the exposure for workers in its plants.

    Because the new standard will apply only to government plants, workers in civilian factories will still fall under the old, higher level. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration alerted workers in September that its current standard, borrowed from the nuclear weapons industry in 1971, "now appears to be too high to prevent chronic beryllium disease," an auto-immune disorder resulting from inhaling particles of the metal. But the agency has not changed its standard. The action by the Energy Department puts it in the unusual role of being stricter than its civilian counterparts in health and safety regulations.

    The Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, said, "We know some of our workers are getting sick from beryllium, and we now have in place the toughest and most comprehensive protections in the world to prevent future cases of this terrible disease."

    Beryllium has found a variety of specialty uses in electronics and other fields, because it is light, stiff and transparent to X-rays, and conducts heat well. It is not a hazard to users of products like golf clubs, said Dr. Milton D. Rossman, a pulmonary specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, unless the golfer decides "to sand them down."

    Beryllium is a unique case in the annals of nuclear weapons manufacture because it is the only substance that the government has acknowledged caused injury and death at levels allowed under its regulations. The Energy Department has used little beryllium recently because it has built only a few nuclear weapons, but the decontamination of old bomb plants is expected to increase the potential for beryllium exposure.

    C. Rick Jones, director of the Office of Worker Protection Programs and Hazards Management in the department, said, "There is a whole new work force that potentially is going to be exposed during this cleanup activity."

    Dr. David Michaels, the assistant secretary for environmental safety and health, said, "We think this is a long way toward eliminating chronic berylium disease."

    But among people susceptible to chronic beryllium disease, Dr. Michaels and other experts said, even brief exposures to small quantities may be sufficient to cause the disease.

    The disease can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, fevers, night sweats and other symptoms, and can be debilitating or fatal.

    The old standard, set by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1949, was adopted in 1971 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for civilian plants, but among weapons workers has caused at least 146 people to develop a disease, according to the Energy Department. Hundreds more show a condition that is likely to progress into the disease, according to the new regulation, which will be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday. The Clinton administration recently proposed legislation that would compensate people who worked for companies that supplied the government with beryllium.

    The new rule requires worker protection measures, like respirators, at 0.2 of a microgram per cubic meter of air, while the 50-year-old standard set worker exposure levels at 10 times as much.

    The new rule is unusual because it states explicitly that the government simply does not know what level, if any, is safe. The strategy to minimize exposure mimics the regulatory scheme for radiation, in which the government sets ceilings but also demands that exposures be kept as low as reasonably achievable.

    Even the old standard limited exposures to small quantities. In its warning, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration pointed out that two micrograms per cubic meter was equivalent to "a marble-sized piece of material that is pulverized and dispersed" into an area 1 mile by 1 mile by 6 feet.

    At the major American maker of beryllium, Brush Wellman Inc., of Cleveland, Marc Kolanz, the director of environmental health and safety, said action levels should be set specific to each place where beryllium was used, because in a laboratory, for example, the 0.2 microgram level was probably too high. He said his company already tried to minimize exposures even below the standard.

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