Occupational Safety and Health:

Government Responses to Beryllium Uses and Risks

OCG-00-6: Published: May 19, 2000. Publicly Released: May 19, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the health safety controls over the use of beryllium, focusing on: (1) beryllium's uses and risks; and (2) key events that illustrate the evolution of the federal government's response to risks posed by beryllium.

GAO noted that: (1) lightness, strength, and other attributes have made beryllium useful in a wide array of products, such as aircraft, spacecraft, X-ray equipment, and nuclear weapons; (2) however, beryllium is considered hazardous; (3) health effects from high exposure to beryllium particles were first noted in the early 20th century; (4) beginning in the 1940s, scientists linked exposure to beryllium with an inflammatory lung condition now called chronic beryllium disease, which can be debilitating and, in some cases, fatal; (5) questions remain about the level of exposure that poses a risk and exactly how chronic beryllium disease develops; (6) in the 1950s, studies showed that beryllium caused cancer in laboratory animals; (7) national and international organizations now consider beryllium a human carcinogen; (8) the magnitude of the risk from current occupational exposure levels is not known, but may be minimal; (9) from the 1960s to the 1990s, Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Energy (DOE), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) took a number of actions to assess and to respond to risks associated with exposure to beryllium; (10) agencies took steps to reduce risks from exposure to beryllium; (11) DOD discontinued testing beryllium in rocket fuel by 1970, due in part to concerns about meeting air quality requirements; (12) OSHA proposed a more stringent worker exposure standard for beryllium in 1975 based on evidence that it was carcinogenic in laboratory animals; (13) the proposal generated concerns about the technical feasibility of the proposal, impact on national security, and the scientific evidence supporting the proposed change; (14) according to OSHA officials, the agency discontinued its work on the proposal in the early 1980s in response to other regulatory priorities such as lead, electrical hazards, and occupational noise; (15) in 1998, the agency announced that it would develop a comprehensive standard for beryllium by 2001; (16) DOE improved working conditions at its facilities and implemented medical testing for its current and former workers during the 1980s and 1990s after new cases of chronic beryllium disease were identified during the 1980s; (17) in 1999, DOE issued a rule that established new worker safety controls, such as increased use of respirators and assessing hazards associated with work tasks, for its facilities that use beryllium; and (18) DOE also proposed a compensation program for DOE workers affected by chronic beryllium disease, which has been introduced as legislation in Congress.

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