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Beryllium FAQs

Questions & Answers About Beryllium

A series of Hanford Site employee meetings were held May 17, 2010 to discuss beryllium and the Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program (CBDPP). Questions that were asked are being posted below. Some general questions and answers about beryllium are also posted below, with some taken from the Beryllium Questions and Answers section of the HPMC OMS Beryllium Information Booklet

Below entries added :  5/25/10

Does my Employee Job Task Analysis (EJTA) reflect past beryllium exposure if I’ve had it?
Currently it does not, but DOE is looking into changing this. Your EJTA does however, look at what known hazards are present, or known to have been present in a given work area or facility – these hazards would include beryllium.  HPMC Occupational Medical Services offers, free of charge and on company time, medical evaluations for historical exposures at Hanford, including beryllium.

Is my Employee Job Task Analysis (EJTA) the only way I can be tested for Beryllium Sensitivity?
No, your EJTA is just one mechanism for getting tested. You can always get yourself tested. In fact, this is encouraged.

What is the Department of Energy’s commitment to funding the Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program (CBDPP)?
DOE is fully committed to funding the CBDPP. This is part of DOE’s overall commitment to doing work safely. We don’t do work unless it is done safely.

Can you get Chronic Beryllium Disease without showing sensitivity to beryllium in blood tests?
Yes, in fact some blood tests can come back as “false negatives” because there are certain medications that mask the characteristics of Beryllium Sensitivity or Chronic Beryllium Disease. Because of this, it is imperative that you let your medical practitioner know what medications you are taking at the time of your blood test. These medications would include both prescription and over-the-counter medications. 

I’ve had two tests for Beryllium exposure come back as negative. Can I still develop Chronic Beryllium Disease?
Yes, you are still susceptible to Chronic Beryllium Disease and you are encouraged to continue to get tested, regardless of how many negative tests you may have had in the past.

Is there a similar emphasis on beryllium prevention in private industry as there is here at Hanford?
Hanford’s protective standards for beryllium are much more stringent than private industry. In fact, the current U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) is twenty times higher than the level established in the Hanford Site CBDPP: OSHA PEL is 2 micrograms, DOE action limit is 0.2 micrograms, and the site CBDPP is 0.1 microgram. In addition, DOE has specific requirements on the control of beryllium, while OSHA does not have any additional regulations other than the PEL.

Do you have to be exposed to beryllium to become sensitized?
Yes, you have to be exposed to beryllium to become beryllium sensitized.

What is the process for sampling and characterization of beryllium and how long does it take to get the results?
The Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program (CBDPP) requires us to look at the square footage of a building and to factor in that building’s likelihood of an historical beryllium presence.  We then break the building into survey units, with a minimum of ten samples per unit, though typically, it’s closer to 20-30 samples. Standard turnaround time for results is about 2-4 weeks, but we are working with our labs to get the results more quickly. 

Above entries added :  5/25/10

What is beryllium?
Beryllium is a naturally occurring element found in soil in the form of beryl and in rock in the form of bertrandite. Beryllium is a silver-grey metallic element and lighter than aluminum yet stiffer than steel. It is a good electrical and thermal conductor and it is non-magnetic. While beryllium occurs naturally in soils and in coal, natural occurring air concentrations are extremely low even in major urban areas.

Where is beryllium used in industry?
Beryllium is extremely lightweight, hard, a good electrical and thermal conductor, and non-magnetic. It is used by many industries, including:

  • Aerospace – components made from pure beryllium as well as copper-, aluminum-, nickel-, and magnesium-beryllium alloys
  • Ceramic manufacturing – semi-conductor chips, ignition modules, crucibles, jet engine blades and rocket covers
  • Electronics – transistors, heat sinks, x-ray windows, computer and telecommunication parts, and automotive parts
  • Atomic energy and defense industries – heat shields, nuclear reactors, components for nuclear weapons
  • Laboratory work – research and development, metallurgy, chemistry
  • Mineral extraction – ore
  • Dental work – alloys in crowns, bridges, and dental plates
  • Metal recycling – computers, electronics, copper-alloy tubing, rod and wire
  • Sporting goods – golf clubs, baseball bats, fishing rods
  • Fluorescent lamps – prior to 1951, beryllium was used in the manufacture of fluorescent lamps


Is beryllium hazardous?
Handling beryllium in its solid form, such as a finished computer part that contains beryllium, is not known to cause illness, but has been linked to sensitization. However, some people who inhale beryllium dust or fumes will develop beryllium sensitization or chronic beryllium disease (CBD). Although beryllium primarily affects the lungs, it can also cause a rash, poor wound healing, or wart-like skin bumps if it enters the body through an opening in the skin, such as through a scrape or cut in the form of a beryllium splinter. 
Some commonly used alloys include:

  • beryllium copper (up to 4% beryllium)
  • beryllium aluminum (20-60% beryllium)
  • beryllium nickel (0.275 to 7% beryllium)

Studies have shown that alloys that contain beryllium can be just as hazardous as pure beryllium metal. A 1999 report summarized two cases of CBD caused by copper alloy containing 2% beryllium. Other studies have shown that breathing even seemingly trivial amounts of beryllium can cause beryllium sensitization and chronic beryllium disease.

Does beryllium cause cancer?
Beryllium has been shown to cause cancer in humans and in many species of animals. Studies have confirmed the association between beryllium exposure and lung cancer in humans, especially in individuals with beryllium-related lung disease. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified beryllium as a human carcinogen. Importantly, the far more common health concerns for beryllium-exposed individuals are beryllium sensitization and chronic beryllium disease, as levels of exposure are generally lower now than they were many decades ago when some of the cancer studies were conducted.

What is beryllium sensitization?
Beryllium sensitization is an “allergic” condition to beryllium that can develop after a person breathes beryllium dust or fumes. Some researchers think it might also occur if beryllium penetrates the skin through an open cut or from a beryllium splinter.
In individuals with beryllium sensitization, the immune system sees beryllium as a “foreign invader,” and builds an “army” of cells in the bloodstream that are prepared to react to beryllium wherever they see it in the body. These cells can be found using a blood test called the beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (BeLPT).

What are the symptoms of beryllium sensitization?
Beryllium sensitization does not have any symptoms.

What is Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD)?
Chronic beryllium disease (CBD) is a lung condition that can develop after a person breathes beryllium dust or fumes. The immune system sees beryllium as a “foreign invader,” and builds an “army” of cells in the bloodstream that are prepared to react to beryllium wherever they see it in the body. When an individual is diagnosed with CBD, it generally means the battle between the immune system and the beryllium particles has resulted in scarring (called granulomas) in the lungs.

What are the symptoms of Chronic Beryllium Disease?
Individuals with CBD may not have any symptoms at first, especially if the disease is diagnosed at an early stage. Patients may notice shortness of breath with walking, climbing stairs, or another activity, as well as a dry cough that will not go away. Some people may also experience fatigue, night sweats, chest and joint pain, and loss of appetite as the disease progresses.

How do you get beryllium sensitization or CBD?
It is important to know that no one develops beryllium sensitization or chronic beryllium disease unless they are exposed to beryllium. Beryllium sensitization and CBD may develop after an individual breathes beryllium dust or fumes. Not every individual who is exposed to beryllium will experience health effects. Studies have shown that on average, 2-6% of exposed workers develop sensitivity, although the rates can be as high as 20% among workers with the highest exposures, such as beryllium machinists. Factors such as particle size, type of beryllium used, amount and duration of exposure to beryllium, occupation, industry, and genetics may all play a role in determining why some people get sick and others do not. Once you are exposed to beryllium, you carry a lifelong risk of developing beryllium sensitization or CBD, even if the exposure amount was small or you are no longer exposed.

How do I know if I have beryllium sensitization or CBD?
Diagnosis of beryllium sensitization and CBD begins with a BeLPT blood test. The BeLPT helps determine if your immune system recognizes beryllium as a foreign invader and responds by building an “army” of cells in the bloodstream that are prepared to react to beryllium. In individuals who do not have beryllium sensitization or CBD, the immune system does not respond to beryllium in any manner. The BeLPT is an important first step in diagnosing disease, but it cannot determine if you have CBD or simply beryllium sensitization. Additional testing is needed to determine whether or not you have disease.

Individuals with two or more abnormal BeLPT results are encouraged to undergo further evaluation to determine if they have CBD. This evaluation typically includes an appointment with a physician familiar with the health effects of beryllium. Based on the outcomes of these tests, your physician will likely be able to determine if you have CBD.

What is medical surveillance?
Medical surveillance programs for beryllium are designed to identify individuals with beryllium sensitization or CBD, as well as work practices that may cause beryllium sensitization and CBD. Surveillance programs typically have several components, including medical screening tests, exposure assessment, and work task analysis. Data collected during surveillance can help identify rates of sensitization and disease among individuals who perform similar types of work, leading to better exposure controls for all workers.

The Hanford Site has developed a site-wide CBDPP which was completed May 2009. The Rule was “designed to minimize the exposure and the potential for occupational exposure to beryllium, reduce the number of workers exposed, and establish medical surveillance protocols to ensure early diagnosis of chronic beryllium disease.” (DOE memo, July 1997).

What can I do to prevent beryllium sensitization and CBD?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for beryllium at 2 micrograms per cubic meter in an 8-hour period. This is roughly equivalent to an amount of beryllium dust the size of a pencil tip spread across an area the length of a football field, 8 feet high. This standard has been shown to be inadequate to prevent beryllium sensitization and CBD, and many in the beryllium community and at OSHA are currently working to establish a lower limit in the workplace. The Hanford Site Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program  sets the action limit for beryllium exposure at .2 micrograms per cubic meter in an 8 hour period. In the workplace, you should substitute another product for beryllium if at all possible, avoid dry sweeping of work areas, use proper exhaust ventilation and equipment, minimize the number of individuals who have access to areas where beryllium is used, ensure respirators fit properly and are used appropriately, change clothes before leaving the beryllium area and work facility, and ensure employees receive regular training on the proper handling of beryllium, as well as the hazards of beryllium exposure.

Is medical screening with the BeLPT blood test recommended?
At Hanford, a voluntary medical surveillance program has been established to provide BeLP blood tests and medical evaluations to workers who are concerned about potential exposure to beryllium.  This program is available to any interested Hanford employee during normal working hours and employees can participate on “company time” and at no expense to the employee.  Any medical test is a serious, personal decision.  The DOE Richland Operations Office (RL) and DOE Office of River Protection (ORP) and the site contractors support this program and encourage employees to gain as much knowledge as possible through this program before making such an important decision.  The results of the testing are kept confidential to the extent allowed by law and employees should know that DOE-RL and ORP expect its contractors to make every effort possible to ensure an individual's work status is not affected by the outcome of the BeLPT blood tests or subsequent medical evaluations.

How do I get started in the voluntary beryllium medical program?
If you are a current Hanford employee, just call the HPMC OMS Beryllium Case Manager, at (509) 376-6000 or email OMC_Beryllium@rl.gov .   Testing for former workers is also available through the DOE Former Worker Program.

Former Production Workers from Hanford who wish to receive screening are asked to call toll free at 1-866-812-6703. Further information on this can be found at: http://www.orau.org/nssp/.

Former Construction (Building Trades) Workers from Hanford who wish to receive screening are asked to call toll free at 1-800-866-9663. Further information can be found at: http://www.btmed.org/. Further information on the DOE Former Worker Medical Screening Program can be found at: http://www.hss.energy.gov/healthsafety/fwsp/formerworkermed/.

If you choose to participate in the Beryllium Previous Exposure Medical Program, HPMC OMS will request you complete the Hanford Site Beryllium Questionnaire for your medical file (http://www.hanford.gov/health/page.cfm/beryllium). You may send it in or wait until your beryllium exam appointment. For further assistance, contact the HPMC OMS Beryllium Case Manager, at (509) 376-6000.

What is being done at Hanford to prevent beryllium exposure?
Hanford has developed an integrated, site wide program to minimize exposure to beryllium at Hanford. The program is called the Hanford Site Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program (CBDPP).  The program covers specific requirements that include air monitoring, identifying and controlling access to facilities where beryllium is known or suspected to be present, requiring medical testing of site employees before they are assigned to areas where beryllium is present, and conducting specialized training for employees who are assigned to work where they may come into contact with beryllium.

How can I submit feedback or a question about the beryllium program?
To send questions, comments or concerns to the Beryllium Program please use the link below


Where can I find more information?





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Last Updated 12/11/2013 4:25 PM