Screenings Find Some Nuclear Workers Exposed to Beryllium

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CPWR - The Center for Construction Research and Training

Summary Statement

Results of a study of workers on DOE nuclear sites, checking for evidence of beryllium exposure
July 2003

Medical screenings of building trades workers who did construction or maintenance on Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear sites since World War II have found that about 2% have a mild form of beryllium-related disease. The DOE used beryllium for nuclear weapons and reactors, because it's lightweight, strong, and easy to mold, but exposure to it can cause serious illness.

With DOE funding under a program required by Congress, CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training, local building trades councils, Duke University, the University of Cincinnati, and Zenith Administrators have conducted free medical exams since 1998 for former workers at Hanford, Washington; Savannah River, South Carolina; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The goal has been to identify health problems that might have resulted from toxic substances on the job.

After exposures even to very small amounts of beryllium, some workers develop an allergy to the metal. The allergy can lead to chronic beryllium disease, which can involve a cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms and cannot be cured. Some cases require treatment with steroids and even an oxygen tank. Exposure to beryllium can increase the risk of getting lung cancer.

Laura Welch, MD, of CPWR, studied results for 3,842 workers screened as of September 2002. Of those whose blood tests confirmed beryllium allergy, 33 were examined further, and 5 were diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease. The workers were referred to doctors who may continue to monitor their cases.

No one knows exactly where the beryllium exposures occurred, but the metal was found at many locations. At Oak Ridge, for instance, in 24 buildings, beryllium was machined, ground, milled, or formed into special shapes; in nuclear weapons that were assembled or disassembled; or on work clothes that were changed (in a locker room) or laundered.

Until the screenings, DOE did not know that the construction workers were exposed to beryllium. As a result of the findings, CPWR says more needs to be done to protect workers from beryllium exposures before work is done where beryllium is or was used - and DOE is taking such steps.

The findings show a need for a nationwide medical screening program for workers at all DOE sites.

To learn more about the screenings, call 1-800-866-9663.