A strong and lightweight metal, beryllium is used to make nuclear weapons and golf clubs. It can be blended into alloys found in dental appliances and anti-lock brakes. Useful as it is, the metal also causes cancers and an often-fatal lung ailment called chronic beryllium disease.
For that reason, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has long placed limits on the concentration of beryllium to which workers may be exposed. Research starting in the late 1970s suggests the limits are not strict enough.
Nine months after President Bush took office, Public Citizen Health Research Group and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union petitioned OSHA to issue a tougher standard on an emergency basis. They argued that the Energy Department had in 2000 tightened the beryllium exposure limit to one-tenth the level that OSHA allows.
It took a year for OSHA's top official, John L. Henshaw, to turn down the petition. "I share your concern about the risks beryllium-exposed workers face," Henshaw wrote to Sidney Wolfe, the director of Public Citizen. But the agency should not move too quickly because of "data gaps" in how many workers are exposed and whether a screening test is effective, Henshaw wrote.
The agency still is working on a beryllium standard, OSHA officials said.
Wolfe said that, since Bush took office, no one at OSHA has met with his liberal consumer lobby. Nor did the agency inform the group that it was writing an advisory bulletin for dental laboratory workers who might be exposed to beryllium.
OSHA, however, did discuss the bulletin with Brush Wellman Inc., the world's biggest producer of beryllium and the only U.S. company that mines beryllium ore. In the weeks before the bulletin was issued in April 2002, company officials submitted editing suggestions and had a teleconference with the OSHA staff.
"Brush Wellman appreciates the opportunity to participate in an ongoing and open dialogue with OSHA to improve workers understanding of beryllium-related health issues," the company's vice president for environmental health and safety, Marc E. Kolanz, wrote in one set of suggestions.
The company sought to play down the risk of exposure and reduce the number of workers advised to get checkups. Brush Wellman proposed inserting a few words to say that workers should be screened only "if they have developed symptoms" of chronic beryllium disease-rather than recommending tests for a much broader group. The company also proposed saying that people who have the disease but lack symptoms "may not progress to clinical chronic beryllium disease over time," an assertion that a senior OSHA epidemiologist said was untrue.
When the nine-page bulletin came out that spring, some of the company's suggestions were included. The most important one was a footnote casting doubt on whether screening tests were worthwhile. It was based on a single report by researchers who had been funded by Brush Wellman.
A company spokesman, Patrick Carpenter, said in a written statement that Brush Wellman had "provided suggestions on correcting inaccuracies ..... and clarifications to contribute to a more informative, complete and straightforward document."
The OSHA epidemiologist, Peter Infante, quit a shortly after the bulletin came out. An OSHA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "We tried to do a fair presentation of everything available to us."
Infante said the episode had pushed him into retirement. "You have to fight and beat your head against the wall just to maintain the scientific integrity of the document," Infante said. "The agency staffer has to show why the industry is wrong. That's what's disgusting."