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Armed with new scientific evidence, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is alerting workers to the hazards of exposure to beryllium, which can cause chronic beryllium disease (CBD), a disabling and often fatal lung disease for which there is no cure.
"In light of this new information our current permissible exposure limits for beryllium in the workplace now appear to be too high to prevent chronic beryllium disease (CBD)," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Charles N. Jeffress.
"The U.S. Department of Energy has proposed a revision to its beryllium regulation for DOE sites, and OSHA will review the issue when DOE acts. In the meantime, we want to alert workers to the potential health hazards from exposure levels below our current limits; the Hazard Information Bulletin we are issuing does just that," Jeffress added.
Beryllium is a metal found in nature, especially in beryl and bertandite rock. It is extremely lightweight and hard, a good conductor of electricity and heat, and is nonmagnetic.
Use of beryllium in the U.S. began in the 1940's in the making of atomic weapons. Today, it is still used in that capacity and in many others, including metal working, ceramic manufacturing, electronic applications, laboratory work, extraction, dental alloys and sporting goods.
Researchers have learned that exposure to low levels of beryllium dust, fumes, metal, metal oxides, ceramics or salts even over a short period of time can result in CBD in some workers. Beryllium and beryllium compounds are also known to cause lung cancer and skin disease.
Currently, OSHA says it is unsafe for employees to be exposed to more than 2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air for an 8-hour time-weighted average or more than 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air for more than 30 minutes. Additionally, OSHA says that employees should never be exposed to more than 25 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air, regardless of how short the exposure. These limits have been in place for nearly 30 years. [Note: Two micrograms per cubic meter is roughly equivalent to a marble-sized piece of material that is pulverized and dispersed into an area 1 mile x 1 mile x 6 feet.]
In addition to possible changes by DOE and OSHA to reduce the risk of lung disease from beryllium exposure, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists recently announced that it intends to slash its recommended exposure limits by 90 percent, from 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over an 8-hour work shift.
OSHA, in its Hazard Information Bulletin, recommends that employers use engineering controls, work practices and personal protective equipment to limit beryllium exposure caused by inhalation and skin contact.
OSHA also urges that exposed employees be sent to a physician or a health care professional who specializes in occupational lung diseases and be evaluated for beryllium sensitization (an allergic reaction that increases the risk of CBD) or the presence of CBD.
CBD symptoms include an unexplained cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, weight loss or loss of appetite, fevers, and/or skin rash. OSHA also urges employees to take along a copy of the Hazard Information Bulletin when visiting a physician or health care professional.
The bulletin also includes a list of several research centers that offer health screening and surveillance programs to assist in identifying and treating beryllium-exposed workers who may have become sensitized or who may have CBD.
The action taken today by OSHA stems from a number of scientific studies, the most recent of which was released earlier this year and which demonstrates that even very low levels of exposure for as little as three months may cause beryllium sensitization in some individuals.
The Hazard Information Bulletin is on OSHA's site on the World Wide Web on the Internet at: http://www.osha-slc.gov/dts/hib/hib_data/hib19990902.html.
The text of this news release is on the Internet World Wide Web at http://www.osha.gov. Information on this news release will be made available to sensory impaired individuals upon request. Voice phone: 202-693-1999.
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