Beryllium Disease in Private Industry on the Rise

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada Joins Nuclear Regulatory Commission

* The Chicago Tribune reported this week that thousands of American workers are at risk of contracting beryllium disease because of poor working conditions in the dental, machining and electronics industries, among others. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (or OSHA) has placed warnings on beryllium and established limits to beryllium exposure. OSHA requirements also state that there must be regular air monitoring for beryllium, and medical testing must be available to any worker who is exposed. However, neither the businesses handling beryllium nor OSHA are enforcing the measures.

Beryllium was once primarily used in the production of nuclear weapons. Private industry now uses beryllium because of its light weight and strength. Beryllium disease is caused by beryllium dust, which damages lungs. It is a rare and often fatal condition. Scientists predict that up to 16% of those exposed to beryllium dust will contract the disease.

A check of 30 businesses using beryllium found that none were following all of OSHA's recommendations, four failed to mention the threat of beryllium disease to its employees, and that some Chicago area businesses had not been inspected by OSHA in a decade. It is estimated that at least 2,000 workers have been exposed to beryllium dust without warning or precautions since 1970.

Government records indicate that there have been 1,300 diagnosed cases of beryllium disease in the U.S. since the 1940s, although experts say that the disease is often undiagnosed. David Michaels, formerly the top health official in the Department of Energy (or DOE) calls the situation "a disaster waiting to happen" and recommends that beryllium use be banned in all industries but defense.

* Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada was elected to oversee the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (or NRC) this week, which gives Reid the power to hold hearings and review bills affecting the NRC. His agency would also be responsible for reviewing DOEšs application to establish the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada.

Reid's proposed hearings include examinations of transportation to Yucca Mountain and the NRC's role in licensing a waste repository in Nevada. Reid is also the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. In that role, he has proposed deep budget cuts of DOE's assessment of Yucca Mountain.

Yucca Mountain is a proposed high-level radioactive waste repository that would accept both commercial and defense wastes. The site is located 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Republicans were wary of Reid's decision to join the NRC because of his already busy schedule. Reid, however, is optimistic, saying, "I want to make sure the NRC lives up to its mission statement, and that is to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety."

Activists are already preparing a list of issues that they would like for Reid to address, including Yucca Mountain and the proposed aboveground nuclear waste storage facility in Skull Valley, Utah. As Lisa Gue of the Nevada group Public Citizen said, "We are certainly going to need somebody to look critically at what the agency is doing, someone who the public can have confidence in."

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