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Beryllium Exposure

Did You Know?

  • There is sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of beryllium and beryllium compounds.
  • There is sufficient evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of beryllium and beryllium compounds.

Beryllium is found at low concentrations in the Earth's crust. Since the early twentieth century, it has been produced and used in a variety of applications as the metal, in alloys and as its oxide.

Although only a relatively small number of workers worldwide are potentially exposed to high levels of beryllium, mainly in the refining and machining of the metal and in production of beryllium-containing products, a growing number of workers are potentially exposed to lower levels of beryllium in the aircraft, aerospace, electronics and nuclear industries. Although the range of industrial processes with potential occupational exposure to beryllium has expanded over the past two decades, exposures have generally decreased over the same period. The most important source of exposure to beryllium in the general environment is the burning of coal.

Increased levels of beryllium have been found in the lungs of people exposed up to 20 years previously. Health effects associated with beryllium exposure can manifest in two ways:

1. Direct damage caused by the chemical toxicity of beryllium.

Beryllium contact with the skin is associated with ulcer formation. Inhalation of high concentrations of beryllium in air is associated with acute beryllium disease. Acute beryllium disease can cause chemical pneumonitis, similar to bronchitis or pneumonia. This acute disease is very rare, because of increased awareness/housekeeping programs now required in manufacturing.

2. Allergic reaction caused by the effect of beryllium on the immune system.

The allergic reaction is thought to occur in 1 to 6% of those exposed. What initially occurs is sensitization. Sensitization occurs after exposure, but may be delayed for years. There is no disease state associated with sensitization. It is important to identify sensitized individuals, however, because they are at high risk for contracting chronic beryllium disease. Symptoms of chronic beryllium disease include, but are not limited to:


- Cough
- Wheezing
- Fatigue
- Fevers

Not all individuals overexposed to beryllium will suffer the allergic reaction; however those that do may have a delay of several years before the allergic reaction manifests.

Beryllium can be harmful if you breathe it. The effects depend on how much you are exposed to and for how long. If beryllium air levels are high enough (greater than 1000 µg/m 3 ), an acute condition can result. This condition resembles pneumonia and is called acute beryllium disease. Occupational and community air standards are effective in preventing most acute lung damage.

Short-term: EPA has found barium to potentially cause the following health effects when people are exposed to it at levels above the MCL for relatively short periods of time: inflammation of the lungs when inhaled; less toxic in drinking water.

Long-term: Beryllium has the potential to cause the following effects from a lifetime exposure at levels above the MCL: damage to bones and lungs; cancer.


  • Electronics (transistors, heat sinks, x-ray windows)
  • Atomic energy industry (heat shields, nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons)
  • Laboratory work (research and development, metallurgy, chemistry)
  • Metal working (pure beryllium, copper and aluminum alloys, jet brake pads, aerospace components)
  • Ceramic manufacturing (semi-conductor chips, ignition modules, crucibles, jet engine blades, rocket covers)
  • Extraction (ore and scrap metal)
  • Dental work (alloys and crowns, bridges, dental plates)
  • Prior to 1951, beryllium was used in the fluorescent lamp industry.

Beryllium can be measured in the urine and blood. The amount of beryllium in blood or urine may not indicate how much or how recently you were exposed. Beryllium levels can also be measured in lung and skin samples. These tests are not usually available at your doctor's office, but your doctor can send the samples to a laboratory that can perform the tests.

Another blood test, the blood beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (BeLPT), identifies beryllium sensitization and has predictive value for CBD.

Typical levels of beryllium that industries may release into the air are of the order of 0.01 µg/m 3 , averaged over a 30-day period, or 2 µg/m 3 of workroom air for an 8-hour work shift.

Ways of Reducing Beryllium Exposure

  • Wash yourself thoroughly immediately after exposure to Beryllium.
  • Avoid breathing beryllium dust or fumes by working in well-ventilated, well-exhausted areas where beryllium air monitoring is done routinely. Use all ventilation and exhaust equipment available in order to reduce exposures to the lowest possible level.
  • Wear protective work clothing.
  • Whenever possible, work with non-beryllium metals, alloys, ceramics and salts.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke in areas where beryllium is in use.
  • Use approved respirators for tasks that may result in high exposures.
  • Avoid generating beryllium dust unless the process is well protected and has been sampled for exposure levels.
  • A regulated, marked area should be established where Beryllium is handled, used, or stored.
  • Post hazard and warning information in the work area.
  • Before entering work areas where beryllium is used, change into work clothes, including shirt, pants and shoes. At the end of the work shift take a shower and thoroughly clean your hands and hair before changing into street clothing.

Long-term exposure to beryllium can increase the risk of developing lung cancer in people.

Products With Potential Beryllium Exposure

additives to glass, ceramic, plastics 

golf clubs

pen clips

aerospace industries (e.g. aircraft frames, engines, and brakes) 


personal computers

automobile industries (engines, electronic parts) 

metallurgic industries / recycling 

precision instruments

brass alloys 


recycling workplaces

camera shutters 

 microwave devices


ceramic industries 

military vehicle armor


chemical industries 


structural material in space technology

dental workshops 

missile production and maintenance

submarine cable housings

electrical relays 

missile guidance systems 

transistor mountings

electronic industries 

nonsparking tools 


fluorescent lamp production / disposal 

nuclear reactors and industries

x-ray tubes


optical industries / workshops



  1. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Toxicological Profile for Beryllium (Draft). Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Atlanta, GA. 1992.
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Toxicological Review of Beryllium and Compounds. In support of summary information on IRIS. National Center for Environmental Assessment, Washington, DC. 1998.
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) on Beryllium . National Center for Environmental Assessment, Office of Research and Development, Washington, DC. 1999.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB, online database). National Toxicology Information Program, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD. 1993.
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances (RTECS, online database). National Toxicology Information Program, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD. 1993.
  6. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cincinnati, OH. 1997.
  7. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  Occupational Safety and Health Standards, Toxic and Hazardous Substances. Code of Federal Regulations. 29 CFR 1910.1000.  1998.
  8. American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). 1999 TLVs and BEIs.  Threshold Limit Values for Chemical Substances and Physical Agents. Biological Exposure Indices . Cincinnati, OH.  1999.
  9. American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). The AIHA 1998 Emergency Response Planning Guidelines and Workplace Environmental Exposure Level Guides Handbook . 1998.