The element beryllium is a grey metal that is stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum. Its physical properties of great strength-to-weight, high melting point, excellent thermal stability and conductivity, reflectivity, and transparency to X-rays make it an essential material in the aerospace, telecommunications, information technology, defense, medical, and nuclear industries.
Beryllium is used industrially in three forms: as a pure metal, as beryllium oxide, and most commonly, as an alloy with copper, aluminum, magnesium, or nickel. Beryllium oxide (called beryllia) is known for its high heat capacity and is an important component of certain sensitive electronic equipment.
The U.S. Geological Survey has listed beryllium as a critical mineral. Under the Energy Act of 2020, a “critical mineral” is defined as a non-fuel mineral or mineral material essential to the economic or national security of the U.S., as well as the supply chain, which is vulnerable to disruption. Critical minerals are also characterized as serving an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for the economic or national security.
Workers in industries where beryllium is present may be exposed to beryllium by inhaling or contacting beryllium in the air or on surfaces. Inhaling or contacting beryllium can cause an immune response that results in an individual becoming sensitized to beryllium. Individuals with beryllium sensitization are at risk for developing a debilitating disease of the lungs called chronic beryllium disease (CBD) if they inhale airborne beryllium after becoming sensitized. Beryllium-exposed workers may also develop other adverse health effects such as acute beryllium disease, and lung cancer.
Who is Exposed?
General Industry occupations with potential exposure to beryllium include:
- Primary Beryllium Production Workers
- Workers Processing Beryllium Metal/Alloys/Composites
- Foundry Workers
- Furnace Tenders
- Machine Operators
- Metal Fabricators
- Dental Technicians
- Secondary smelting and refining (recycling electronic and computer parts, metals)
- Abrasive Blasters
Construction and shipyard occupations with potential exposure to beryllium include:
- Abrasive blasters and pot tenders
Where is Beryllium Used?
End products1 containing beryllium and beryllium compounds are used in many industries including:
- Aerospace (aircraft braking systems, engines, satellites, space telescope)
- Automotive (anti- lock brake systems, ignitions)
- Ceramic manufacturing (rocket covers, semiconductor chips)
- Defense (components for nuclear weapons, missile parts, guidance systems, optical systems)
- Dental labs (alloys in crowns, bridges, and dental plates)
- Electronics (x- rays, computer parts, telecommunication parts, automotive parts)
- Energy (microwave devices, relays)
- Medicine (laser devices, electro-medical devices, X-ray windows)
- Nuclear energy (heat shields, reactors)
- Sporting goods (golf clubs, bicycles)
- Telecommunications (optical systems, wireless base stations)
CHRONIC BERYLLIUM DISEASE: A LONG-TERM HEALTH EFFECT
Long-term, or chronic, health effects can take years to develop after the first exposure to beryllium and can affect people who were exposed to very small amounts of beryllium. In some cases, CBD has been diagnosed in former office workers and others who had only brief, incidental exposure to beryllium.
CBD is primarily a lung disease, but it may also affect other organs, particularly the lymph nodes, skin, spleen, liver, kidneys, and heart and take years to develop.
For guidelines on how to protect workers, OSHA has an update:
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1 This list describes end uses of products containing beryllium, not sources of beryllium exposure. Exposures to beryllium occur in the processing of beryllium-containing materials to produce these end products, not in the use of these end products in their finished form.