Passing On

Chronic beryllium disease takes the life of Rosa Maldonado.

Rosa Maldonado, 56, died on May 7 due to complications of chronic beryllium disease. She is one of 31 former Brush Wellman employees diagnosed with the disease since the Tucson plant opened in 1980.

CBD is caused by white cells accumulating around beryllium particles in the lungs, forming a chronic inflammatory reaction called granulomas. Exposure to fine particles of beryllium causes the incurable lung disease in 2 to 6 percent of all employees in industries that produce microscopic-sized beryllium dust particles, but in Tucson's Brush Wellman plant--in surveys done on old-time machinists--the percentage is much higher. Dr. Lee Newman, of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver--one of the leading medical experts on CBD in the United States--points out that development of CBD was as high as 20 percent among Tucson Brush Wellman machinists.

Maldonado--profiled in "Something in the Air" on Feb. 13--worked in the Brush Wellman plant for six years.

Maldonado's family calls her death a relief, in some ways. Her quality of life deteriorated to the point that she could barely leave her bed, much less the house.

She required constant liquefied oxygen. She had to use a colostomy bag because part of her intestine had to be removed due to side effects from her medication. She had osteoarthritis, diabetes and was especially susceptible to sicknesses like pneumonia and bronchitis. Between Jan. 1 and April 17, her family says that paramedics were called to the house at least six times because her life was in danger.

Her family was at her side when she was in the hospital those last weeks, as they were during previous hospitalizations. She steadily worsened and was transferred to the ICU on May 4. Finally, the doctor told the family they had to decide whether to put her life support or take her to the hospice.

"It makes it look like we're the ones doing it to her," said Maldonado's daughter Tisha.

Finally, the family was able to help Maldonado decide herself to go to the hospice. She passed away at 9:58 the morning of May 7.

"Hopefully," said Tisha, "they (Brush Wellman) will have some kind of conscience, if they're human. They'll remember her and everything she went through."

Brush Wellman does express sympathy.

"We are deeply saddened by her death," said Human Resources Director Rob Napoles. "She had many friends when she worked here, and many of those friends continue to work here. We are all touched by her loss. At this time, our thoughts are with her family."

Napoles also points out that Brush Ceramic Products remains committed to eradicating CBD from the workplace, and to that end, numerous safety measures have been implemented to further protect workers inside the plant, including enhanced ventilation systems and employer-mandated HEPA air filtering respirators worn by workers to prevent inhalation of beryllium powder.

"The primary public protection mechanism is the air filtering system used to clean the internal ventilation system air," he said. "We want to pull all the loose powder away from workers, capture anything that may be escaping from the production process and filter that for recovery."

Workers are also required to wear uniforms that don't leave the plant and shower in special showers before changing back into their street clothes and leaving.

Once used almost solely for defense-related products, beryllium is now used in numerous industries because of its unique properties. It's the second-lightest metal, is 40 percent more rigid than steel, has a high heat threshold and is a good conductor.

THE EPA, THROUGH THE Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, regulates the amount of beryllium Brush Wellman is allowed to release.

Brush Wellman's records show that the company is releasing much less than the legal limit--non-detectable amounts are being released on a .25 micrograms analytical limit of detection since 2000, which is a one-time snapshot of what's being released at any given moment, not a total measure of release for the day.

Levels are measured four times a year by an independent consulting firm. In 2002, the consulting firm tested with new equipment more sensitive to .012 micrograms and found non-detectable amounts.

Before these tests, Brush Wellman conducted a yearly stack test and reported a total daily emission of beryllium particles of about .1 gram per day.

Despite these measurements, the Environmental Justice Action Group, a local environmental watchdog group, is concerned. In 2000, property adjacent to the Brush Wellman plant was tested; levels of beryllium were high enough in the soil that the land couldn't qualify for anything except its current commercial zoning permit.

If levels were truly negligible, EJAG asks, then how did this buildup in the soil occur? EJAG is pushing for a new air permit with stringent safety measures and point out that there are six schools in a one-mile radius.

The PDEQ is currently reviewing a new air permit in a process that started several months ago.

"There's not really a hold up," said Frances Dominquez, program coordinator for PDEQ. "It's a negotiation. We sent it to the EPA and they made some suggestions. We incorporated them into permit and the facility now needs to see it."

Napoles said Brush Wellman is reviewing the permit carefully.

"It's an important document both for us and community," he said. "We want to do everything to assure that it meets community needs and regulatory standards as well as the framework in which we operate. We expect to get it back to PDEQ very soon."

Then, it will be open for public comment. This is the way the environmental regulations work--the company being regulated is very involved ,and proposed changes in the air permit go back and forth between the regulating agency and the company.

Pat Bernie of the EJAG has been fighting for tougher safety measures for years.

As she said in February, before Maldonado's death: "The role of the federal, state and local governments 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."