Dr. Lee Newman, our center director, has researched one element on the periodic table — beryllium — and its effect on worker health for more than three decades. Beryllium is a lightweight metal often used to manufacture aerospace technology and every day goods, from golf clubs to bicycles. Sadly, exposure to this element’s dust, even a minuscule amount, is toxic. Beryllium can cause a range of serious health issues, including an incurable lung disease called chronic beryllium disease (CBD).
Newman first began his research on this toxic metal in 1999, when he was working as a pulmonary physician. Seeing a pattern of similar symptoms among workers from Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons production facility, he began investigating the link between these symptoms and exposure to beryllium. Years of his, and his colleagues’, research uncovered that the Occupational Safety Administration(OSHA)’s exposure limit was not safe. In fact, it was ten times more than what Newman found to be a safe level of exposure to beryllium.
Newman wrote to OSHA, testified before congress, published more than one hundred peer-reviewed papers, and worked directly with businesses that handled beryllium in an effort to protect workers from exposure to hazardous levels of beryllium. By 1991, Newman and his team had field tested an immunologic assay to detect CBD. That test is now used internationally as the gold standard for clinical diagnosis. In partnership with Oak Ridge Universities, he designed the National Supplemental Screening Program, which screens former workers form U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sites health conditions. He spearheaded a DOE repository of data and biological specimens called the Beryllium Biobank, a resource for researchers.
Relying on our research and responding to calls from industry, labor unions, public citizen groups, academia, and healthcare organizations, OSHA passed an updated exposure limit in 2017 that reflects sound science and will protect workers from beryllium. The new rule reduces the exposure limit by ten times the previous levels and OSHA estimates this will save the lives of more than 90 workers every year. We estimate that hundreds more lives will be saved as a result of this policy change.
Since the National Supplemental Screening Program
began in 2005, we have screened more than 17,000 former energy site workers. In a 2016 study, we found that roughly 41% of the workers screened were diagnosed with a work-related condition and 96% were diagnosed with a non-work-related health condition. Thanks to this free program provided by the DOE, tens of thousands of workers have sought follow up care and received federal compensation.
Dr. Newman continues to share his research expertise on beryllium with policymakers, the media, fellow scientists, and his students. Contact us
for more information.
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