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What is Beryllium ?

What is Beryllium Disease (Berylliosis)?

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People who smoke may breathe considerably more beryllium than people who do not smoke. The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the EPA has determined that beryllium is a probable human carcinogen.

Beryllium elements occur naturally in about 30 minerals. People working or living near beryllium industries have the greatest potential for exposure to beryllium. Lung damage has been observed in people exposed to high levels of beryllium in the air. About 1-15% of all people occupationally-exposed to beryllium in air become sensitive to beryllium and may develop chronic beryllium disease (CBD), an irreversible and sometimes fatal scarring of the lungs. CBD may be completely asymptomatic or begin with coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, and/or fatigue. Beryllium has been found in at least 535 of the 1,613 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Beryllium, which was discovered in 1798 by the French chemist L.N. Vanquelin,  corresponds to the fourth element in the periodic table, and with an atomic weight of nine, it is  the second lightest metal known. Beryllium metal did not become readily available to industry until 1957.

The metal, steel gray in color, has many desirable properties. As one of the lightest of all metals, it has one of the highest melting points of the light metals. Its modulus of elasticity is about one third greater than that of steel. It resists attack by concentrated nitric acid, has excellent thermal conductivity, and is nonmagnetic. It has a high permeability to X-rays and when bombarded by alpha particles, as from radium or polonium, neutrons are produced in the amount of about 30 neutrons/million alpha particles. At ordinary temperatures, beryllium resists oxidation in air, although its ability to scratch glass is probably due to the formation of a thin layer of the oxide.

Beryllium disease primarily affects the lungs. The disease occurs when people inhale beryllium dust or fumes. Skin disease with poor wound healing and rash or wart-like bumps can also occur. A person can develop beryllium disease even after being away from the beryllium industry for many years. There are two forms of beryllium disease:

Acute Beryllium Disease usually has a quick onset and resembles pneumonia or bronchitis. It is now rare due to improved industrial protective measures designed to reduce beryllium exposure levels.

Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD) has a very slow onset. It still occurs in 1-6% of exposed people. It is caused by an allergic reaction to beryllium. Even brief or small exposures can lead to this disease.

Beryllium has been shown to cause cancer in several species of animals. Workers in some beryllium producing facilities have had an increased rate of lung cancer, as have beryllium cases in the U.S. Beryllium Case Registry. Beryllium has recently been classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Beryllium disease occurs among people exposed to dust or fumes from beryllium metal, metal oxides, alloys, ceramics or salts. Even very small amounts of exposure to beryllium can cause disease in some people. You are at risk of developing beryllium sensitization even after you leave beryllium exposure.

Depending on how workers are exposed, the diseases can affect different tissues and organs. Breathing in fumes or dusts of beryllium compounds may injure the lungs. Direct contact with beryllium fumes or dusts may injure the exposed areas of the body, such as the eyes or the skin. Beryllium may also affect such organs as the liver, kidneys, heart, nervous system, and the lymphatic system, which carries water, white blood cells and proteins to the blood.

What are the industrial uses of beryllium?

Industrial processes that use beryllium or products that contain the metal include:

  • Extraction of beryllium (smelting and refining)
  • Beryllium metallurgy (production of beryllium metal and compounds)
  • Precision machining
  • Nuclear applications
  • Microcircuits
  • Stamping/cutting
  • Die casting
  • Plastic molding
  • Welding electrodes
  • Handling/assembly
  • Dental plates manufacturing
  • Thermal castings
  • X-ray tube window manufacturing
  • Guidance and navigation systems manufacturing
  • Rocket parts and heat shields.

This condition is called chronic beryllium disease. This disease can occur long after exposure to small amounts of either the soluble or the insoluble forms of beryllium. If you have this disease you may feel weak, tired, and have difficulty breathing. The risk continues the rest of your life, even if you tested normal for beryllium sensitization at one time.

You can be exposed to low levels of beryllium by breathing air, eating food, or drinking water that contains beryllium. An estimated 18,000 workers may be exposed to beryllium and beryllium oxide in the workplace. As a member of the general public, you may be exposed to higher than normal levels of beryllium if you live near an industry that processes or uses beryllium. People who live near hazardous landfill sites that contain high concentrations of beryllium may also be exposed to higher than normal levels of beryllium. Beryllium, as a chemical component, occurs naturally in tobaccos and can be inhaled from cigarette smoke.

Medical Test for Beryllium

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.

Note: The onset of these effects may not occur for 3 months to 15 years after exposure to Beryllium. Beryllium has been shown to cause lung cancer in rats and monkeys. It is not known if beryllium causes cancer in humans


  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.
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  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.