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Something in the Air 

Beryllium has hurt more than 30 former employees of Brush Wellman. Does this beryllium pose a threat to the greater community?

Of the 28 or so living Brush Wellman employees and ex-employees diagnosed with Chronic Beryllium Disease, Rosa Maldonado is one of the sickest.

She requires constant liquefied oxygen, four to five liters a day. A large purple scar--about 3 1/2 inches long--serves as a constant reminder of the shoulder surgery she needed in September after a dizzy spell caused her to fall and dislocate her shoulder. Due to side effects from her medication, she had part of her intestine removed, with her bowels diverted to a small hole in the abdomen, where a colostomy bag is fitted. Her sister, husband and daughter take turns changing the bag.

Maldonado, 55, has osteoarthritis linked to long-time use of the prednisone steroid. Walking two steps to her portable commode tires her. Her diabetes, another side effect of the steroids, has worsened. She points out her red, bruised toenails that keep falling off. She doesn't leave the house anymore; she hasn't since the fall.

All this apparently has happened because Maldonado spent six years (1983-1989) working at Brush Wellman's south Tucson plant, breathing in beryllium--a substance that is toxic in its powder form. CBD is caused by white cells accumulating around beryllium particles in the lungs, forming a chronic inflammatory reaction called granulomas.

In addition to the 31 total employees diagnosed as having CBD, 13 more workers have tested positive to sensitization, often a precursor to the full-blown, incurable disease.

The toll CBD has taken on Maldonado's family has been extensive. She doesn't qualify for a home-health aide because of the $150,000 lump-sum settlement package, through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, provided to workers who were knowingly exposed to hazardous materials in order to build Cold War defense weapons.

And while she is one of 12 Tucson workers involved in a lawsuit against Brush Wellman, the suit was dismissed without trial because the workers had accepted Arizona state workman's compensation, which contains an exclusionary clause prohibiting workers from suing the company.

Maldonado's sister, Yolanda, used to go to community college in Glendale before she began taking care of Maldonado full-time.

"Do you think they can get someone for me during the day so she can rest?" Maldonado asks. Maldonado's daughter, Tisha, sees how hard Yolanda works

"Even if someone would come help, volunteer to sit with her while my aunt has an appointment," says Tisha.


While Brush Wellman has been out of the news lately, it may be back in it soon enough, because its air permit is up for review by the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality. PDEQ is still acting on Brush's old air permit, which has been in place since 1980 when Brush Wellman opened its Tucson Boulevard factory. The PDEQ inspects one time a year.

The beryllium that made Maldonado and many others sick doesn't just stay inside the ceramics plant. Every day, a "legal" amount of beryllium is spewed into Tucson's air.

This has Pat Bernie, a facilitator for the local Environmental Justice Action Group, concerned. The fact that six schools--not to mention residents and businesses--are within a one-mile ring around the plant means that Brush Wellman's emissions are a community issue.

Sunnyside Unified School District, which operates the six schools, was concerned enough about safety to install four air filters, at a cost of $20,000, plus operating costs. While the school district's consulting group is still preparing the report from the first group of filters sent to them, it says that the levels of beryllium detected thus far are insignificant.

Nonetheless, Bernie wants Brush Wellman to agree to zero emissions.

"Brush Wellman's air permit was up for renewal last November," says Bernie. "We have studied many facets of Brush Wellman's operations and the various federal and state regulations regarding beryllium. We have had to dig hard for the information since it is not readily available.

"Our county Department of Environmental Quality has been cooperative in providing us with the documents they have, but we are convinced they have been lax in their oversight of Brush operations due to a lack of technical expertise, a shortage of personnel, tight budget and inadequate regulations from an industry-friendly state government. The present permit fails to require the company to monitor the air, assess the effectiveness of the filters or maintain them so they don't fail."

Frances Dominquez, program coordinator for the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, can't say for sure when Brush Wellman's permit will be open for public comment.

"I can't give you a definite date. It has to go to company, then to us, and then after that to the EPA, then back to us. It will be a month or two before the draft goes out for public notice for the public to comment on it, and that's still not a finalized permit.

"That's as definite as I can be."


Mike Matulin, 43, worked at Brush Wellman for just five months in the 1980s. But that didn't stop him from getting CBD. Like Maldonado, he got the $150,000 settlement and took worker's comp.

"I took workman's comp because I was sick," he explains. "I couldn't work. I had no benefits."

He says he didn't know he would lose the right to sue or that workman's comp would be pro-rated back to what he was making as a machinist at Brush Wellman in the '80s--about two-thirds of his gross wages then, or about $120 a week. By the time he first became ill in 1992, he was making $16 an hour as a journeyman electrician.

The sickness hit him hard, coming on with unbelievable force. "When I first got sick, I couldn't walk to the mailbox," he says. "Within three days, I went from a strapping, young former Marine to a bedridden invalid."

Some individuals remain stable for many years; others develop severe respiratory symptoms within a few months. Most experience a slow, inexorable decline in pulmonary function.

Matulin has improved since his bedridden days and has become one of Brush Wellman's most outspoken critics.

"Most of the last 15 years, I've made nothing," he says. "The only reason we've survived is my wife. How would you like to be married with two kids in the prime of your life and have a medical record stack like this?"

He points out a 5-inch-tall stack of paperwork, which, it turns out, isn't his full medical records, only what he used to prove he qualified for the $150,000 settlement.

By the time he received the settlement money, he was destitute. "We were three months behind on the mortgage. We were going to lose everything."


While the county gives Brush Wellman an air quality permit for emissions, OSHA is the true oversight agency for what goes on inside the plant. Current OSHA guidelines for beryllium say that the maximum amount of beryllium release is 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air as an 8-hour average, 5 micrograms as a ceiling not to be exceeded for more than 30 minutes at a time and 25 micrograms as a peak exposure, never to be exceeded.

These limits have been in place for nearly 30 years without revision.

"To understand how small a microgram is, consider that a penny weighs two grams," says the Department of Energy's new training procedures manual for DOE employees who work with beryllium. "If a penny were cut into 2 million pieces of equal size, each piece would have a mass of 1 microgram."

But many medical experts and scientists think that the 2-microgram limit is too high. And the limit for Department of Energy workers and federal contractors is .2 micrograms per cubic meter--10 times lower than the OSHA level.

In fairness to Brush Wellman, it has been well below these limits, according to the company's documentation and that of an independent consulting firm that takes the levels four times per year. Rob Napoles, Brush Wellman's director of human resources and corporate communications, said that the plant levels from November 2002's stack test showed non-detect levels of beryllium particulate on a test sensitive to .012 mg.

"We daily monitor the system activity, by physical inspection and instrument readings, to ensure it is operating as intended at full efficiency," says Napoles. "... Although EPA guidelines call for annual testing, and would allow Brush to perform the testing themselves, we have opted, in response to community concerns, to have an outside party perform emissions testing quarterly.

Napoles says the zero-emissions standard wanted by EJAG are unreasonable.

"Zero emissions are a scientific impossibility," he says. "HEPA filters, which we employ in our systems, are 99.97 percent efficient at 0.3 microns in size and higher at any other particulate size. These are highest quality air particulate filtering devices available today for industrial purposes because they provide the most effective particulate control available.

"In our situation, however, the sampling performed on our emissions has routinely provided 'non-detect' results. This means that given today's testing ability the lab cannot find the presence of beryllium in our air emissions."


Molly Valenzueza used to be the kind of worker who didn't like to sit down on the job. When she started working at Brush Wellman in 1984, she had, in her words, "the most boring job you could get there." She inspected chips through a microscope.

She was glad to get transferred to a different area. She remembers the steps: "Go get the parts, put them on a conveyor belt to go through to ovens. Take out the finished ones. Get more." She liked the constant motion.

She had no idea that those 17 months at the Brush Wellman plant would change her life. In 1990, she began getting coughing spells, to the point where she couldn't do her job at Ansel, where she started working after she was laid off at Brush Wellman.

The spells became progressively worse. She broke her ribs in July of 1991 as a result of her violent, chronic cough. Doctors still didn't know what was wrong with her, but put her on emergency oxygen.

She wasn't accurately diagnosed until she heard that people were getting sick at Brush Wellman. These days, whenever Valenzueza's active--when she hangs up laundry on the line or walks to the mailbox--she wears a backpack that contains an oxygen supply running to her nose through a tube. She's on oxygen all night while she sleeps, something that she doesn't do well, thanks to the steroids.

"The prednisone makes it hard," she says. "I can't get to sleep until two or three in the morning. I try to sleep, look at the TV, read. Now I've gotten lazy and get up at 8:30."

Another of the common side of effects of the prednisone--used to control the violent coughing and to try to halt lung damage--is puffiness of the face.

"I never used to be fat until I started on steroids," she says.

Valenzueza turned 60 on Feb. 3. Her four kids wanted to have a party for her, but she didn't want one.

"Why, I say. I can't dance. I don't want to sit around."


It's important to note that, as Brush Wellman's Napoles points out, not one person from the area around Brush Wellman's plant has shown signs of CBD.

This doesn't impress Bernie.

"How come Don Diamond's soil is too contaminated to be developed residentially?" she asks. "The beryllium on that land had to come from somewhere."

Diamond, a top real estate investor, owns an empty lot next to Brush Wellman.

"Our concerns are not only about the community, but the workers," Bernie says. "If Brush Wellman was as clean as they claim, they wouldn't have so many workers getting sick."

But Brush Wellman representatives point out that it has come a long way in terms of monitoring and other safety measures since employees including Maldonado, Mautlin and Valenzueza worked at the plant. Experts say that the CBD risk in early 1990s was more than 20 percent. But newly hired employees have not shown sensitization to beryllium since monitoring began in January 1999. However, sensitization can take years to show--experts don't really know how long--and CBD often doesn't show symptoms for 10 to 20 or more years after exposure.

Napoles says Brush Wellman has been done everything the government has asked them to.

"We have been in complete compliance with PDEQ requirements concerning beryllium emissions," he says, adding that Brush Wellman has offered to discuss these issues with EJAG, an offer that's been refused.

However, he concedes that the facility was cited for modifying a ventilation system condition without notifying the county two years ago. That same inspection fined Brush Wellman for releasing air from an unvented dryer used for contaminated clothes.

"That did not involve a manufacturing process or a release of beryllium," Napoles says. "In fact, this (notice of violation) was a purely administrative issue. PDEQ stated that there were no emissions, no threat to the community and no threat to the environment."

PDEQ is also negotiating whether to fine Brush for another finding of loose joints in air ducts that allowed air leaks.

About the air duct leak, Bernie responds: "There was no external monitoring. How can they know that no beryllium was released?"

Bernie says she wishes the government was doing more to protect and inform its citizens around the Brush Wellman plant. After all, seeing as CBD can take 10-20 years to show up, who knows what the future could hold for those near the plant?

"The role of the federal, state and local governments," Bernie says, "should be to protect people and not be so industry-friendly as to ignore serious health hazards that may not become evident until years later."

More by Kari Redfield

  • On the Other Side

    If you think the economy's bad here, drive an hour to Nogales, Sonora.
    • Sep 11, 2003
  • Passing On

    Chronic beryllium disease takes the life of Rosa Maldonado.
    • May 22, 2003
  • More »

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