This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about beryllium. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
People working or living near beryllium industries have the greatest potential for exposure to beryllium. Lung damage has been observed in people exposed to high levels of beryllium in the air. About 1-15% of all people occupationally-exposed to beryllium in air become sensitive to beryllium and may develop chronic beryllium disease (CBD), an irreversible and sometimes fatal scarring of the lungs. CBD may be completely asymptomatic or begin with coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, and/or fatigue. Beryllium has been found in at least 535 of the 1,613 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is beryllium?
Beryllium is a hard, grayish metal naturally found in mineral rocks, coal, soil, and volcanic dust. Beryllium compounds are commercially mined, and the beryllium is purified for use in nuclear weapons and reactors, aircraft and space vehicle structures, instruments, x-ray machines, and mirrors. Beryllium ores are used to make speciality ceramics for electrical and high-technology applications. Beryllium alloys are used in automobiles, computers, sports equipment (golf clubs and bicycle frames), and dental bridges.
What happens to beryllium when it enters the environment?
- Beryllium dust enters the air from burning coal and oil. This beryllium dust will eventually settle over the land and water.
- It enters water from erosion of rocks and soil, and from industrial waste. Some beryllium compounds will dissolve in water, but most stick to particles and settle to the bottom.
- Most beryllium in soil does not dissolve in water and remains bound to soil.
- Beryllium does not accumulate in the food chain.
How might I be exposed to beryllium?
- The general population is exposed to normally low levels of beryllium in air, food, and water.
- People working in industries where beryllium is mined, processed, machined, or converted into metal, alloys, and other chemicals may be exposed to high levels of beryllium. People living near these industries may also be exposed to higher than normal levels of beryllium in air.
- People living near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites may be exposed to higher than normal levels of beryllium.
How can beryllium affect my health?
Beryllium can be harmful if you breathe it. The effects depend on how much you are exposed to and for how long. If beryllium air levels are high enough (greater than 1000 µg/m3), an acute condition can result. This condition resembles pneumonia and is called acute beryllium disease Occupational and community air standards are effective in preventing most acute lung damage.
Some people (1-15%) become sensitive to beryllium. These individuals may develop an inflammatory reaction in the respiratory system. This condition is called chronic beryllium disease (CBD), and can occur many years after exposure to higher than normal levels of beryllium (greater than 0.5 µg/m3). This disease can make you feel weak and tired, and can cause difficulty in breathing. It can also result in anorexia, weight loss, and may also lead to right side heart enlargement and heart disease in advanced cases. Some people who are sensitized to beryllium may not have any symptoms. The general population is unlikely to develop acute or chronic beryllium disease because ambient air levels of beryllium are normally very low (0.00003-0.0002 µg/m3).
Swallowing beryllium has not been reported to cause effects in humans because very little beryllium is absorbed from the stomach and intestines. Ulcers have been seen in dogs ingesting beryllium in the diet. Beryllium contact with skin that has been scraped or cut may cause rashes or ulcers.
How likely is beryllium to cause cancer?
Long term exposure to beryllium can increase the risk of developing lung cancer in people.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that beryllium is a human carcinogen. The EPA has determined that beryllium is a probable human carcinogen. EPA has estimated that lifetime exposure to 0.04 µg/m3 beryllium can result in a one in a thousand chance of developing cancer.
How can beryllium affect children?
There are no studies on the health effects of children exposed to beryllium. It is likely that the health effects seen in children exposed to beryllium will be similar to the effects seen in adults. We do not know whether children differ from adults in their susceptibility to beryllium.
We do not know if exposure to beryllium will result in birth defects or other developmental effects in people. The studies on developmental effects in animals are not conclusive.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to beryllium?
- Most families will not be exposed to high levels of beryllium.
- Children should avoid playing in soils near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites where beryllium may have been discarded.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to beryllium?
Beryllium can be measured in the urine and blood. The amount of beryllium in blood or urine may not indicate how much or how recently you were exposed. Beryllium levels can also be measured in lung and skin samples. These tests are not usually available at your doctor's office, but your doctor can send the samples to a laboratory that can perform the tests.
Another blood test, the blood beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (BeLPT), identifies beryllium sensitization and has predictive value for CBD.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA restricts the amount of beryllium that industries may release into the air to 0.01 µg/m3, averaged over a 30-day period.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets a limit of 2 µg/m3 of workroom air for an 8-hour work shift.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2002. Toxicological Profile for Beryllium. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-32
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1- 800-232-4636 / TTY: 888-232-6348