For several years, Adam M. Finkel, a top administrator at the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said he expected the agency to test its inspectors for exposure to beryllium fumes or dust. In 2002, he realized the agency was not moving in that direction, and he became a whistle-blower.
He said he thought inspectors were at risk for contracting chronic beryllium disease, which can be fatal. The agency didn't begin testing until last year. And recent news reports said at least three inspectors tested positive for blood abnormalities that indicate they could be susceptible to the disease.
Jonathan L. Snare, acting administrator at OSHA, said in an interview that it would be premature to comment on whether anyone tested positive because the agency has not completed the testing of 301 inspectors.
Beryllium, an extremely lightweight metal that is a carcinogen, is used in making microprocessors, golf clubs and dental alloys and in the military and nuclear industry.
Inhaling even minute amounts of beryllium dust or fumes can be dangerous, though not everyone exposed gets sick. Studies cited by OSHA show that an average of 2 percent to a high of 15 percent of workers who manufacture beryllium products get the disease.
The permissible exposure level for beryllium is 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air for an eight-hour period. That limit was set in 1971 and was based on a 1949 standard set by the Atomic Energy Commission. OSHA began work on setting a new standard in 1975, but it was never completed.
"The agency is in some kind of grand denial of the problem that extends to its own workers. Because they have not protected workers, they have put their own employees at risk," said Peter Lurie, a physician and deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group.
In 1999, the Department of Energy cut the standard for beryllium exposure for workers at its plants to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air and started a prevention and testing program for current and former workers. Finkel said medical and scientific staff members at OSHA tried to persuade their agency to do the same.
At the time, Finkel was a director of health standards for the entire agency. He later became a regional administrator in Denver.
He said in the interview that he based his concerns on data that showed possible exposure levels for up to 500 inspectors. Workers who show a sensitivity to the metal should not be further exposed, Finkel said, noting that he was speaking for himself and not the agency. "It's analogous to sending a kid with peanut allergy into the Jiffy factory."