Beryllium in the 1940s

In the 1940s, the relationship between beryllium and health effects is first hypothesized and developed. Because no one knows what the relationship is at this point, airborne concentrations of beryllium during much of this decade range from 100 to 10,000 times higher than the levels typically experienced in modern times.


Medical debate begins in the United States about a lung problem arising in facilities using beryllium materials. The first occupational beryllium disease case in acute form is identified in the United States by Dr. Howard S. Van Ordstrand of The Cleveland Clinic.

The U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), however, disagrees with Van Ordstrand and publishes an article stating beryllium is inert and not toxic.

As a result of this controversy, the two principal beryllium producers (Beryllium Corporation and Brush Wellman) have different views on the course of action to take in the years that follow. The Beryllium Corporation in Pennsylvania embraces the PHS view and consequently takes no action to protect workers or warn customers for some time. This decision is supported by medical and industrial hygiene authorities in that state. Brush, however, subscribes to Dr. Van Ordstrand’s view, and begins cooperating with researchers to determine causes of the problem. Brush’s cooperation ultimately leads to the establishment of control standards to reduce exposures.


Dr. Van Ordstrand, together with Dr. Joseph DeNardi (who treated workers at Brush’s Lorain facility), and Dr. M. G. Carmody (who treated workers at a Painesville beryllium company), reports cases of the acute disease, including five fatal cases.


Dr. Harriet Hardy (Massachusetts General Hospital) and Dr. Irving Tabershaw (Massachusetts Public Health Service) report cases of workers in the Massachusetts fluorescent light industry whose symptoms are not acute but are similar to the symptoms of a rare disease known as Boeck’s sarcoid. They hypothesize that exposure to phosphors of beryllium is somehow involved.


A tuberculosis laboratory symposium under the direction of Dr. A. Vorwald first publicly addresses the Hardy/Tabershaw findings concerning what later becomes known as chronic beryllium disease (CBD).

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) is created, and following the symposium, assigns Merril Eisenbud as the lead scientist to investigate beryllium’s health implications. The AEC takes the position that since the federal government is the main customer for beryllium, it should ensure its safe production and set exposure standards, although nothing in the law requires the AEC to do this.


Following a two-year AEC investigation, three exposure standards are recommended by Eisenbud:

  • From the air emission data, Eisenbud theorizes that the so-called “neighborhood” cases stem from plant-caused air pollution. An air pollution standard is proposed of 0.01 microgram per cubic meter of air (the 0.01 microgram standard) as a monthly average. Later investigations of the “neighborhood” cases show that some or all have contact with the plant directly or with workers or their clothing brought home from the plant.
  • As a result of data collected during an accident, Eisenbud recommends an exposure limit of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air (the 25 microgram standard) to prevent the acute disease, a limit with a four-fold safety factor. The occupational controls immediately reduce the number of cases of the acute form of the disease in the then-existing beryllium industries.
  • Based on a comparison with other metals, a workplace exposure limit of 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air (the 2 microgram standard) of air as a daily weighted average over an eight-hour day is recommended to prevent what will become known as CBD, a limit thought to have a substantial safety factor.

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