Chronic Beryllium Disease: When Hazardous Dust on the Job Hurts Your Lungs

CBD causes, symptoms and treatment
Chronic Beryllium Disease: When Hazardous Dust on the Job Hurts Your Lungs

If you work in a plant that makes cars, computers or electrical equipment you should know about the risks of inhaling dust from beryllium, a light metal common to these industries.

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Improvements in recent years have made conditions involving beryllium exposure safer. But even exposure to low levels over a short time can cause health problems, particularly if you are predisposed to beryllium disease.

Here’s what you need to know about this condition, your risk and the importance of getting tested even if you don’t have symptoms.

Who is at risk?

Handling beryllium metal doesn’t cause problems, but breathing the dust during fabrication is hazardous. There are only a few plants that produce beryllium, but thousands of industries use it in their manufacturing processes, says pulmonologist Raed Dweik, MD.

“Beryllium is used in a lot of secondary applications,” he says. “The most common are aerospace, nuclear power plants, cars, computers and even in making golf clubs and mountain bikes.”

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA), more than 7,000 organizations across the United States may expose more than 60,000 workers to beryllium.

What causes reactions and hypersensitivity?

Not everyone who is exposed to beryllium will develop health problems. About 10 percent end up with an allergic reaction (known as sensitization) and about half of that 10 percent develop chronic beryllium disease (CBD) or berylliosis, Dr. Dweik says.

When you inhale beryllium powder or fumes, your body may see those substances as invaders. If so, your immune system will respond with  immune cells, causing swelling and inflammation in the lungs.

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Over time, this can cause CBD, and scarring can reduce your lungs’ function.

Some people who work around beryllium never have a problem. Some are sensitized, and others end up with CBD, Dr. Dweik says.

What accounts for the differences? It’s a combination of exposure, immune response and genetics.

“It’s difficult, because people who are exposed and have a genetic predisposition to it are more likely to get it,” he says. “But not everyone with these genetics gets it and not everyone who doesn’t have them is safe.”

And you don’t have to work in close contact to get CBD. Even if you have an administrative job in a plant that processes beryllium, you are at risk, he says.

What are the symptoms?

CBD is tricky to diagnose because there is a wide range of response to exposure. Some people have problems after just a few months. Others may not have symptoms until decades later.

CBD symptoms usually occur once the condition progresses. They include:

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  • Difficulty breathing/shortness of breath.
  • Weakness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • Joint pain.
  • Cough.
  • Night sweats.

How do doctors test for chronic beryllium disease?

If you work in a facility that uses beryllium, it’s important to have regular tests before you see symptoms, Dr. Dweik says.

“By the time you have symptoms you will have significant damage to the lungs,” he says. “The way to look for it is through a blood test and all workers with exposure need periodic screenings.”

A beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test can tell if you are having an allergic reaction (sensitization) to the metal. Lung function tests and X-rays can help identify lung damage. A definitive diagnosis usually requires a lung biopsy.

What can help treat this condition?

An early diagnosis enables your doctor to monitor your health more closely.

There is no cure for CBD, but medication can keep it from progressing, Dr. Dweik says. Doctors may prescribe corticosteroids to help suppress the immune system and prevent it from attacking the body.

For those who are sensitized, he recommends ending exposure to beryllium if possible.

“Those who know they are exposed need to be tested and screened periodically,” he says. “And if they are sensitized they need to go to a large medical center with special expertise in beryllium-induced lung disease to be evaluated; there are only a few in the country that know how to do this.”

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