Reviewed by Lisa A. Maier, MD, MSPH, FCCP

What is beryllium?

Beryllium is a naturally occurring element found in rock and soil in the form of beryl and bertrandite, respectively. Beryllium is lighter than aluminum, yet stiffer than steel. These properties make it useful in many industrial applications. While beryllium occurs naturally in soil, rocks and coal, it is because this beryllium is often bound 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. Beryl rock is mined and processed to produce beryllium in several different forms; processing beryllium and beryllium rock in industry can result in sensitization and disease.

 

Where is beryllium used?

Beryllium is extremely lightweight, hard, a good electrical and thermal conductor and nonmagnetic. It is used by many industries, including but not limited to:

  • Aeronautics and Aerospace – Components made from pure beryllium as well as copper-, aluminum-, nickel-, and magnesium-beryllium alloys

  • Ceramic manufacturing – Semiconductor 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 and dental labs

  • Mineral extraction – beryllium and other ore and some aluminum extraction processes

  • 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 a finished part does not 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.

It is important to know that no one develops beryllium sensitization or chronic beryllium disease (CBD) unless he or she is exposed to beryllium and develops 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 percent beryllium), beryllium aluminum (20 – 60 percent beryllium), and beryllium nickel (0.275 – 7 percent beryllium). 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 percent beryllium. Other studies have shown that breathing even seemingly trivial amounts of beryllium dust or fumes can cause beryllium sensitization and chronic beryllium disease.

 

Does beryllium cause cancer?

Beryllium has been shown to cause cancer in humans and in many species of animals and beryllium has been classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Although lung cancer risk is significant, lung cancer usually develops after very high exposures, like those that were seen in the early years (e.g., 1930s - 1950s) of beryllium production. The risk of lung cancer among workers exposed to much lower levels than currently seen in industry is much lower and/or not well understood. 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, extension 1722.

 

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