Beryllium (chemical symbol: Be) is the fourth element on the periodic chart, and a light metal. Beryllium is the lightest metal in its class, along with magnesium, calcium, strontium, barium and radium. Beryllium’s light weight, low density and high melting point make it ideal for projects that require low-weight, high-strength materials. Beryllium is also less likely to be deformed than steel, can dissipate heat quickly and is an excellent sound conductor.
The most frequent use of beryllium is in an alloy with copper. The beryllium combines with the copper to make a light, strong metal that can be easily shaped while still able to undergo massive stresses. The beryllium-copper alloy is often used in the fabrication of structural pieces for fighter jets, space capsules, satellites and in many other aerospace applications.
Beryllium ore (bertrandite) ranges from dull white to steel gray in color. Brush Wellman, a mining company based in the Spur Mountain region of Utah, currently provides more than ninety percent of the world’s supply of raw beryllium ore. Another smaller mine, the Allard Beryllium Mine in Chaffee County, Colorado, also extracts tons of the mineral every year. A state-owned mine in China is believed to produce more than twenty tons of pure beryllium from its mines every year.
Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) have concluded that beryllium causes lung cancer in humans. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that beryllium can increase the risk of lung cancer in patients who have been exposed to the mineral. According to their estimates, long-term exposure to concentrations of beryllium as low as four-one-hundreths of a microgram per cubic meter of air can increase in a person's odds of being diagnosed with lung cancer to one in one thousand.
According to a study done at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more than thirty thousand Americans encounter beryllium on their jobs. Of those workers, up to ten percent develop some form of illness due to exposure, ranging from skin irritation to lung disease, including lung cancer.
Mine workers are frequently exposed to mineral dust containing beryllium. When they inhale the dust, the beryllium particles settle into the lungs and irritate the tiny air sacs. Metal workers in fabrication shops can also be vulnerable to beryllium, either through inhaling the dust generated by cutting the metal sheets or by contact with exposed skin.
Beryllium exposure is also known to be the cause of other lung disorders. Acute beryllium disease (ABD) is a lung disease that resembles pneumonia. During periods of high-level exposure, beryllium dust particles can irritate the alveoli, the tiny organs inside the lungs responsible for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. ABD symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain and fever.
Patients that are particularly sensitive to beryllium particles can develop chronic beryllium disease (CBD). Patients may not exhibit symptoms of CBD until years after the initial exposure period, so they may not even be aware that they either have the sensitivity to beryllium or carry the disease. Symptoms often include coughing, lack of energy, sudden weight loss, difficulty breathing and high fever.
Beryllium can also cause skin diseases, including warts, rashes and slow healing of open wounds. Contact dermatitis, a skin rash typically associated with an allergic reaction, can also result from beryllium exposure.
Several federal agencies oversee how mining and manufacturing firms deal with worker safety issues concerning beryllium exposure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a limit of two micrograms per cubic meter of air during an eight-hour shift. NIOSH has set a lower limit of one-half of one microgram per cubic meter per shift.
Federal worker safety agencies encourage those who deal with beryllium to take proper precautions: wear protective goggles, masks and coveralls whenever possible to lower the risk of exposure. Workers can learn if they are potentially sensitive to beryllium by taking a simple blood test called the beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (BeLPT), which measures the reaction of the lymphocytes to beryllium particles.