The second part of the video on beryllium is now finished. You can watch it here:
This video has literally been 2 1/2 years in the making; my students Amy Zirbes and Nathan Jane videotaped our interview with subject expert Phil Sabey, the Manager of Technology and Quality at the Delta mill, in NOvember, 2007. This video discusses the history of mining beryllium at the mine site in the Spor Mountains of western Utah, including how the bertrandite deposit was discovered, and the land rush that occurred as a result (including an incident involving Maxie Anderson, who was head of Ranchers and the general counsel for Anaconda. Maxie Anderson went on to be one of three men to first cross the Atlantic in a helium balloon in 1978). This video also shows how bertrandite it is mined today by Brush Engineered Materials using open pit mines, then transported and processed at the concentration plant near Delta, Utah. The concentrated beryllium hydroxide is then shipped by rail to Elmore, Ohio for final refining into beryllium metal, alloys, and ceramics products. This episode also discusses Chronic Beryllium Disease, the main health hazard of refining or working with beryllium.
Chronic Beryllium Disease:
Beryllium dust, when in the air in concentrations of greater than 2 micrograms per cubic meter, gets inhaled and irritates the lung alveoli. The body treats it as an invading body, and sends white blood cells which surround the beryllium particle and form small granules called granulomas in the lungs. At this point, a person is said to have sub-clinical CBD or is “sensitized” to beryllium. Most people who are sensitized do not develop clinical CBD, but in about 2-5% of sensitized people, the immune system overreacts and the granulomas build up to where the lungs become stiff and respiratory function is impaired, leading to symptoms similar to pneumonia. There is no cure once CBD has set in, and the eventual result is painful death.
Before the effects of beryllium dust were known, a high number of workers in the beryllium industry were getting sick, especially in certain plants such as the old Brush Wellman plant in Lorain, Ohio. Beryllium in its ores (beryl crystals and bertrandite) is tightly bound to the crystal lattice and is therefore harmless. But refining bertrandite or beryl means that the beryllium is physically and chemically separated from the crystal, resulting in fine beryllium particles getting into the air unless precautions are taken. The effects of beryllium disease were well enough known by the mid-1960s that when the Delta concentration plant was built, safeguards were put in place that reduce beryllium dust to under 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, or less than 10% of the maximum safety levels. Workers also wear respiratory equipment such as facemasks with filters to prevent even that level of dust from entering their lungs. There has not been any incident of chronic beryllium disease in the workers at the Delta plant.
Final beryllium metal, alloys, and ceramics are also fairly safe as the beryllium is part of the metal and not airborne. The danger occurs when these materials are cut, machined, or milled, which allows beryllium particles to get into the air where they can be inhaled. The only way to cure chronic beryllium disease is to avoid it in the first place by preventing beryllium dust from entering the air. Special precautions must therefore be taken in any business that handles beryllium. OSHA has been studying CBD and is likely to be coming out with new and even stricter standards soon.