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What is Berylliosis?

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  • Written By: Emma Lloyd
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 November 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Berylliosis lung disease, also known as chronic beryllium disease, is an occupational disease, meaning that it is known to be most common in people who work in certain occupations. In the case of chronic beryllium disease, people who work in nuclear physics-related industries or are constantly exposed to old fluorescent lighting are at risk. Chronic berylliosis is caused by hypersensitivity to an element called beryllium, which leads to the development of an inflammatory lung disease.

Beryllium is a rare element which is used in several different industries. Due to its ability to form hard, durable alloys with copper, aluminum, and steel, this metal is used in the manufacture of materials for nuclear reactors, the aerospace industry, and certain electronics industries. Beryllium was once used in the production of fluorescent lighting; this use of the metal has been discontinued because of the danger of berylliosis as a result of exposure to the lighting.

All beryllium compounds are considered potentially harmful, especially if they give off inhalable particles. If absorbed through the skin or lungs, beryllium can be stored in the bones, liver, or spleen, leading to acute or chronic toxicity. In general, a single high-dose exposure incident can cause acute toxic symptoms, while constant low-level exposure causes chronic beryllium disease.

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When inhaled, beryllium may cause two types of disease. Acute berylliosis is caused by inhalation of a large amount of beryllium compound. In this case the metal acts as a harsh chemical irritant which causes a pneumonia-like inflammatory disease and may lead to massive lung damage. This type of beryllium disease is extremely rare, largely as a result of safety improvements in industries where the metal is used.

Chronic beryllium disease still occurs in people who work in industries where the metal is used in manufacturing. Chronic exposure to beryllium dust or fumes causes the lungs to become hypersensitive to the metal. This causes the immune system to become responsive to beryllium, causing chronic inflammation in the lungs. Over time, granulomas form in the lungs. A granuloma is a location where immune cells enclose a foreign body, attempting to wall it off from surrounding healthy tissue.

As increasing numbers of granulomas develop, lung function becomes progressively worse. Berylliosis symptoms which may develop include chest pain, a cough, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and joint pain. People with chronic beryllium disease may also develop a skin rash, and may have swollen lymph nodes, liver, or spleen.

Chronic beryllium disease symptoms are managed with corticosteroids, which are used to reduce inflammation in the lungs. These drugs dampen the entire immune response, however, and are suitable only for short-term use. Someone with end-stage beryllium disease may be a candidate for a lung transplant, providing he or she is in good enough physical health to withstand the stress of the procedure.

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