Beryllium Research

Periodic Table of Elements focusing on Beryllium under a magnifying glass

Respiratory Health Division (RHD) Research on Beryllium Sensitization and Chronic Beryllium Disease

Some workers exposed to beryllium dusts and/or fumes may develop an immune response known as sensitization, which can be detected in the blood with the beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (BeLPT). Some sensitized workers may have or may develop chronic beryllium disease (CBD), a slowly progressive respiratory disease characterized by the formation of lung lesions called granulomas. These granulomas and accompanying fibrosis cause impairment of the lung’s ability to expand fully and to oxygenate the blood. The rate of progression from less severe to severe disease can vary widely. There is no cure for CBD, although symptoms can be treated. It has been estimated that as many as 134,000 current US workers in private industry and government may be exposed to beryllium (Henneberger 2004).

Since 1998, NIOSH has been conducting research in collaboration with the leading U.S. producer of beryllium and beryllium-containing products, under a Memorandum of Understanding. The goal of this research is to prevent sensitization and CBD by developing a better understanding of the work processes and exposures that may present a potential risk for workers, and to develop effective interventions that will reduce the risk for adverse health effects. NIOSH also conducts genetic research on sensitization and CBD, independently of this collaboration.