What is Beryllium?

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this section, you will be able to

  • describe beryllium’s properties, and
  • describe how people are exposed to beryllium.
What Is Beryllium?

Pure beryllium, one of the lightest metals known, is a hard, grayish material obtained from the minerals bertrandite and beryl. Gem-quality beryl is known as either aquamarine or emerald.

Beryllium has unique properties such as strength, electrical and thermal conductivity, and resistance to corrosion (Stonehouse and Zenczak 1991) which makes the use of the metal and its oxide attractive in a wide range of technological applications (Weston et al. 2005).

Although beryllium is a naturally occurring substance, the major source of its emission into the environment is the combustion of fossil fuels (primarily coal), which releases beryllium-containing particulates and fly ash into the atmosphere. Beryllium is relatively water insoluble and adsorbs tightly to soil therefore, it is not often a drinking water contaminant. It has been found in various foodstuffs, but bioaccumulation in the food chain is not significant (Taylor et al. 2003; Kolanz et al. 2001).

How are People Exposed to Beryllium?

Most exposures to beryllium that cause disease are related to some aspect of beryllium processing. Because of its unique properties, beryllium is used in many high-technology consumer and commercial products. The major pathway for human exposure is through airborne particles of beryllium metal, alloys, oxides, and ceramics (Kolanz 2001). Beryllium particles are inhaled into the lungs and upper respiratory tract. Exposures not directly related to inhalation of workplace air, such as hand-to-mouth exposure, dermal contact with ultrafine particles, and resuspension following deposition of beryllium dust onto clothing may also occur (Kolanz et al. 2001; Deubner et al. 2001; Tinkle et al. 2003).

Key Points
  • Some individuals exposed to beryllium develop sensitization and are at risk of developing chronic beryllium disease (CBD).
  • CBD is primarily an occupational lung disease, but it has been reported in household contacts of beryllium workers and individuals living near beryllium facilities.