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 lighter than aluminum yet stiffer than steel. It is useful in many industrial applications. While beryllium occurs naturally in soil and in coal, it is because this beryllium is often locked up in solid rock and soil composition that naturally occurring air concentrations are extremely low, even in major urban areas. This means you cannot develop beryllium sensitization from casual exposure to soil and rocks outdoors.
Where is beryllium used?
Beryllium is extremely lightweight, hard, a good electrical and thermal conductor and nonmagnetic. It is used by many industries, including:
- Aeronautics and 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
- Prior to 1951, beryllium was used in the manufacturing 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, unless the part still has dust on it from the production process. Exposure to beryllium salts can cause a rash and/or inflammation in the respiratory tract. Most workers today are exposed to the metal or oxide forms. If beryllium enters the body through an opening in the skin, such as through a sliver or cut, it can cause a rash, poor wound healing, or wart-like skin bumps.
Although low levels of beryllium are found naturally in soil and air, there is not enough beryllium in the air or soil to cause beryllium sensitization or CBD from these sources alone, nor in the form of beryllium-rock in the ground known to cause an inhalation or skin exposure hazard.
It is important to know that no one develops beryllium sensitization or chronic beryllium disease (CBD) unless they are exposed to beryllium and develop an immune response to it. Beryllium sensitization and CBD may develop after an individual breathes beryllium dust or fumes. Most people who are exposed to beryllium will not experience health effects.
I’ve been exposed to dust or fumes from an alloy that contains only a small amount of beryllium. Is this hazardous?
Some commonly used alloys include beryllium copper (up to 4% beryllium), beryllium aluminum (20-60% beryllium), and beryllium nickel (0.275-7% beryllium)1. Studies have shown that dust or fumes from 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% beryllium2. Other studies have shown that breathing even seemingly trivial amounts of beryllium dust or fumes can cause beryllium sensitization and chronic beryllium disease3,4.
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 acute beryllium disease, caused by very high levels of beryllium exposure5. Beryllium has been classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Despite the possibility of leading to lung cancer, the more common health concerns for beryllium-exposed individuals are beryllium sensitization and chronic beryllium disease (CBD), as levels of exposure are generally lower now than they were many decades ago when most of the cancer studies were conducted.
For more information on beryllium, please contact National Jewish Health® at 1.800.222.5864.
- Mroz MM, Balkissoon R, Newman LS. Beryllium. In: Bingham E, Cohrssen B, Powell C (eds.) Patty’s Toxicology, Fifth Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons 2001, 177-220.
- Balkissoon RC, Newman LS. Beryllium cooper alloy (2%) causes chronic beryllium disease. J Occup Environ Med 1999; 41: 304-308.
- Kreiss K, Mroz MM, Ahen B, Martyny JW, Newman LS. Epidemiology of beryllium sensitizations and disease in nuclear workers. Am Rev Respir Dis 1993; 148:985-991.
- Newman LS, Kreiss K. Non-occupational chronic beryllium disease masquerading as sarcoidosis: Identification by blood lymphocyte proliferative response to beryllium. Am Rev Respir Dis 1992; 145:1212-1214.
- Steenland K, Ward E. Lung Cancer Incidence Among Patients with Beryllium Disease: a Cohort Mortality Study. J Natl Cancer Inst 1991; 83:1380-1385.
- Kriebel D, et al. The pulmonary toxicity of beryllium. Am Rev Respir Dis 1988; 137: 464-473.
- Kreiss K, Newman LA, Mroz M, Campbell PA. Screening blood test identifies subclinical beryllium disease. J Occ Med 1989; 31:603-608.
- Kreiss K, Wasserman S, Mroz MM, Newman LS. Beryllium disease screening in ceramics industry: Blood test performance and exposure-disease relations. J Occup Med 1993; 35: 267-274.
- Kreiss K, Mroz MM, Newman LS, Martyny J, Zhen B. Machining risk of beryllium disease and sensitization with median exposures below 2 µg/m3. Am J Indust Med 1996; 30:16-25.
- Kreiss K, et al. Risks of beryllium disease related to work processes at a metal, alloy and oxide production plant. Occup Environ Med 1997; 54:605-612.
- Mroz MM, Kreiss K, Lezotte DC, Campbell PA, Newman LS. Re-examination of the blood lymphocyte transformation test in the diagnosis of chronic beryllium disease. J Allergy Clin Immunol 1991; 88:54-60.
- Kreiss K, Miller F, Newman LS, Ojo-Amaize EA, Rossman MD, Saltini C. Chronic beryllium disease: From the work place to cellular immunology, molecular immunogenetics, and back. Cl Immunol Immunopath 1994; 71:123-129.
- Rossman MD. Differential diagnosis of chronic beryllium disease. In: Rossman MD, Preuss OP, Powers MB, eds. Beryllium: Biomedical and Environmental Aspects. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1991; 167-175.
- Newman LS, Mroz MM, Maier LA, Danilof EM, Balkissoon R. Efficacy of serial medical surveillance for chronic beryllium disease in a beryllium machining plant. J Occup Environ Med 2001; 43:231-237.
- Yoshida T, Shima S, Nagoka K et al. A study on the beryllium Lymphocyte Transformation Test and the beryllium levels in working environment. Ind Health 1997; 35:374-379.
- Cullen M, et al. Chronic beryllium disease in a precious metal refinery: clinical, epidemiologic, and immunologic evidence for continuing risk from exposure to low-level beryllium fume, Am Rev Respir Dis 1987; 135:201-208.