What is beryllium, and why do workers have to be protected from it?

IN THE LAST ARTICLE for this Safety Solutions & Supply blog site, we wrote about the pending new federal health and safety mandate for occupational exposure to the element beryllium. The 2018 final rule regarding beryllium will be enforced by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (www.osha.gov) beginning May 11 this year.

In this article, we’ll share some information about beryllium itself and why it’s a danger to people employed in manufacturing, construction, maritime shipping, and other industries.

From LiveScience.com, we learn that the metallic element beryllium is uniquely strong and light, and that it’s commonly used to make cell phones, missiles and aircrafts. It’s also used in nuclear and medical work and in ceramic applications. “But workers who handle the metal need to watch out, as airborne beryllium has been known to be highly toxic,” LiveScience.com reports.

According to OSHA, beryllium is a grey metal that is stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum. Its physical properties include great strength-to-weight, a high melting point, excellent thermal stability and conductivity, reflectivity, and transparency to X-rays. Beryllium is classified as a strategic and critical material by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The United States is the world’s leading beryllium source and producer. In 2014, the U.S. produced 270 metric tons of beryllium domestically and imported 68 metric tons, according to OSHA. Bertrandite (less than 1 percent beryllium) is the principal mineral mined for beryllium in the U.S.; beryl (4 percent beryllium) is the principal mineral mined for beryllium in the rest of the world.

OSHA reports that beryllium is used industrially as a pure metal, as beryllium oxide, and, most commonly, as an alloy with copper, aluminum, magnesium, or nickel. Beryllium oxide, or beryllia, is known for its high heat capacity and is an important component of certain sensitive electronic equipment. Copper-beryllium alloy is commonly used to make bushings, bearings, and springs. Beryllium is also found as a trace metal in slags (as defined by Wikipedia, the glass-like byproduct left over after a desired metal has been separated from its raw ore) and fly ash (a byproduct of the coal combustion process).

So, how is beryllium harmful — a hazard in the workplace? As stated by OSHA:

“Workers in industries where beryllium is present may be exposed to beryllium by inhaling or contacting beryllium in the air or on surfaces. Inhaling or contacting beryllium can cause an immune response that results in an individual becoming sensitized to beryllium. Individuals with beryllium sensitization are at risk for developing a debilitating disease of the lungs called chronic beryllium disease (CBD) if they inhale airborne beryllium after becoming sensitized. Beryllium-exposed workers may also develop other adverse health effects such as acute beryllium disease, and lung cancer.

“Berylliosis, or chronic beryllium disease (CBD), is a chronic allergic-type lung response and chronic lung disease caused by exposure to beryllium and its compounds, a form of beryllium poisoning.”

A website for the University of California San Francisco adds that CBD causes scarring of the lung tissue.

BERYLLIUM FAST FACTS

(Courtesy of Encylopedia.com and LiveScience.com)

SYMBOL — Be

ATOMIC NUMBER: 4

ATOMIC MASS — 9.012182

FAMILY — Group 2 (IIA); alkaline earth metal

MELTING POINT — 2,349° F (1,287° C)

BOILING POINT: 5,378° F (2,970° C)

PRONUNCIATION — buh-RIL-Lee-um

DISCOVERY — In 1798 by the French chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin, who found it in the oxide form in beryl and a green-colored variety of beryl, emerald, a naturally occurring green gemstone.

NAMING — Named after beryllos, the Greek name for the mineral beryl, the element originally was known as glucinium — from the Greek glykys, meaning “sweet” — to reflect its characteristic taste. (Chemists now say “Don’t taste it!”)

OTHER — Beryllium is classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

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