ture of aircraft disc brakes nuclear weapons and reactors missile parts heat shields X-ray machine parts mirrors, and spacecraft. Beryllium oxide is used in ceramics for electronics and high technology applications, but from 1945 through the mid-1990s, more than 90 percent of all beryllium was processed for use by the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Energy (DOE) (and DOE’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission) to produce nuclear weapons.
Workers exposed to beryllium dust are at risk of developing serious debilitating diseases. Acute (short-term) beryllium disease causes lung inflammation resembling pneumonia. Chronic beryllium disease (CBD) is a debilitating disease of the lung, apparently immunologically mediated. In severe cases both the acute and chronic conditions may be fatal. The Department of Health and Human Services Environmental Protection Agency and International Agency for Research on Cancer consider beryllium to be carcinogenic.
Prevalence estimates of acute beryllium disease in Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) workers ranged as high as 7 percent in the late 1940s. An 8-hour average permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 2 micrograms/cubic meter was adopted in 1949 by the AEC, and it remained unchanged until 1999, when DOE lowered the PEL to 0.2 micrograms per 8-hour shift for its government workers and federal contractors. These standards were effective in eliminating most acute lung disease. CBD may have a latency of up to 30 years, however, and prior to the advent of current immunological tests, it frequently may have been misdiagnosed. Several studies of lung cancer in current and former beryllium workers returned the spotlight to beryllium hazards, and in 1993 Congress passed Public Law 102-484, which required the DOE to evaluate the long-range health conditions of current and former employees and contractors whose health might be at risk as a result of exposure to radioactive or other hazardous substances.
In a series of pilot studies throughout the 1990s, the DOE Former Workers Program established that it would be possible to locate and contact workers who might have been exposed to hazardous substances. DOE also began medical monitoring of current employees using the beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (BeLPT). DOE estimates that about 20,000 current and former workers were or may have been exposed to beryllium. By the end of 1999 DOE had screened 13,770 of these workers and found 149 cases of CBD and an additional 299 workers with positive beryllium BeLPT tests but no clinical manifestations of disease.
In December 1999 DOE issued a rule establishing regulations to reduce beryllium exposure levels among its workforce, reduce the number of workers exposed to beryllium, and provide medical testing for exposed and potentially exposed workers. This rule on chronic beryllium disease prevention applies to federal, contractor, and subcontractor employees at 17 DOE facilities where there is actual or potential exposure to beryllium. In addition, the Secretary of Energy announced a legislative proposal reversing DOE’s past practice of op-