Beryllium: Science or Public Relations?

Did Brush Wellman, the worldâs largest producer of beryllium products, hire Hill and Knowlton, the public relations giant behind Big Tobaccoâs campaign to fool the public about the hazards of smoking, to help Brush refute reports of berylliumâs toxicity? Brush says no, but we have the smoking guns -- memos and invoices -- that say otherwise. Keep reading for the details.

Beryllium is a remarkable metal. It is stiffer than steel, lighter than aluminum, and causes lung disease at incredibly low levels of exposure. And it causes cancer in humans. This lightweight metal is has long been employed in nuclear and defense operations, and is now being used is bicycle frames and other consumer products. There is no evidence of a safe exposure level. The question that needs to be asked is whether beryllium should be banned in non-defense applications.

There is a national discussion underway right now on the hazards of beryllium. The National Academy of Sciences will soon issue a report, requested by the Air Force, on protecting Defense Department personnel exposed to beryllium. The EPA has announced that it is revising its beryllium risk assessment document and is holding a meeting in July for public input into the process. And OSHA is moving at a glacial pace to replace the current outdated workplace exposure standard (it is sixty years old and even the beryllium industry acknowledges it is inadequate), although no one pretends anymore that this administration will actually issue a new standard.

To help advance the national discussion on beryllium, weâve posted a case study of the beryllium industryâs thirty-year campaign to stop stronger beryllium standards on DefendingScience.org, the website of the George Washington University School of Public Healthâs Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy.

Iâve been working on beryllium issues for ten years. As Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environment, Safety, and Health, I helped promulgate a beryllium protection standard for nuclear weapons workers ten times more protective than OSHAâs standard. In this capacity, I had the opportunity to observe close-up the beryllium industryâs public relations campaign to prevent a stronger OSHA standard and to claim that beryllium does not cause lung cancer.

Iâve written about this campaign in my new book Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health (Oxford University Press, 2008). And earlier this year, Celeste Monforton and I wrote a paper in Public Health Reports (the journal of the US Public Health Service) entitled "Berylliumâs Public Relations Problem: Protecting Workers When There Is No Safe Exposure Level." In the article we focus on the industryâs campaign to defend the adequate standard. (For the industryâs efforts to dispute the studies showing beryllium is a carcinogen, youâll have to read my book.)

We make some pretty strong assertions in the book and the paper about the beryllium industry and the product defense scientists (several of whom also worked for the tobacco industry) who manufactured scientific uncertainty about the hazards of beryllium. We knew they would be controversial, so weâve posted on the web the powerful, previously secret documents on which we base our claims. (Iâve posted all Doubt is Their Productâs more than 1000 references here, with hyperlinks to difficult-to-obtain documents.)

After our paper was published in Public Health Reports, Marc Kolanz, beryllium manufacturer Brush Wellmanâs Vice President for Environmental Health and Safety, wrote a long response. He did not dispute almost everything we wrote, which we took to mean that our assertions were accurate; instead, most of his letter promoted the industryâs positions on beryllium issues that were tangential to our paper. Mr. Kolanz did, however, dispute our statement that Brush had hired Hill and Knowlton to design a public relations effort to defend beryllium. In our paper, we wrote:

In the face of increasing evidence about the toxic effects of their products, the beryllium industry also turned for assistance to the public relations (PR) firm, Hill and Knowlton. This firm has gained much notoriety for its now well-known efforts in manufacturing and promoting scientific uncertainty for the tobacco industry. In its proposal explaining to Brush Wellman how it could help, Hill and Knowlton echoed the AEC PR problem memo of 1947:

Beryllium undoubtedly continues to have a public relations problem. We still see it cited in the media, as well as in our conversations with people who should know better, as a gravely toxic metal that is problematic for workers. . . . We would like to work with Brush Wellman to help change these common erroneous attitudes. We envision a public relations program designed to educate various audiences . . . to dispel myths and misinformation about the metal.

Hill and Knowlton proposed to prepare âan authoritative white paper on beryllium . . . [that] would serve as the most definitive document available on beryllium.â

The PR firm also suggested projects to engage outside scientists in independent review of Brush Wellman materials âto nurture relations with the Environmental Protection Agencyâ and âto challenge all unfair or erroneous treatment in the media to set the record straight.â

Appended to the letter was a document in which Hill and Knowlton boasted of their experience assisting other corporations that faced regulatory difficulties stemming from their production of hazardous products, including asbestos, vinyl chloride, fluorocarbons, and dioxin, although no mention was made of the firmâs work for cigarette manufacturers. Matthew Swetonic, the staff person proposed to direct the PR campaign, had been a key player in Hill and Knowltonâs campaign on behalf of a cigarette manufacturer to convince the public that nonsmoker exposure to environmental tobacco smoke was harmless and to âcreate a favorable public climateâ to assist in defeating lawsuits filed by smokers with lung cancer. In addition, Swetonic had previously performed PR work for Johns-Manville, the asbestos producer, and had been the first full-time executive secretary of the Asbestos Information Association, an organization founded by the asbestos industry to counter the evidence of that mineralâs deadly properties.

Once hired, it appears that Hill and Knowlton sought to reassure Brush Wellmanâs customers of the safety of beryllium. The firm drafted a letter for Brush to send to its beryllium ceramic customers, asking them to âconsider these facts:â
â No occupational cases of Be [beryllium] disease have developed since the 1940s when the standards first were put into effect.
â No occupational cases of Be disease have ever been found when exposure was at or even near standards.

The files reviewed for this case study do not reveal whether this letter was sent.

In his response, Mr. Kolanz writes:

The best example of the authorsâ skewed presentation of industry communications is their emphasis on the Hill and Knowlton professional media relations proposal submitted to Brush Wellman. Contrary to the authorsâ statements, we did not hire Hill and Knowlton nor implement its proposal.

Needless to say, this came as a surprise to us, so we went back to our collection of documents and found several that dispute Mr. Kolanzâs denial. As we replied in the latest issue of Public Health Reports, the evidence we have for Brushâs relationship with Hill and Knowlton is an invoice sent by the public relations firm to Brush (with accompanying note), the Hill and Knowlton public relations program proposal, an internal Brush memo talking about materials needed for the Hill and Knowlton initiative, a letter from Brush to Hill and Knowlton providing âsupporting information for the PR program,â a series of letters developed by Hill and Knowlton for Brush to send to its customers reassuring them of the safety of beryllium, and copies of letters sent by Brush Wellmanan that include much of the text provided by Hill and Knowlton (with copies sent to the PR firm).

Whether Brush hired this cynical PR firm is not as important as whether the beryllium manufacturer has orchestrated a decades-long campaign to oppose badly needed public health regulation. This unfortunate campaign continues to this day (see, for example, David Kriebel's recent editorial on the beryllium industry's efforts to dispute the findings of a NIOSH study on beryllium's carcinogenicity) , and has had a detrimental impact on the health of workers exposed to beryllium.

Our case study has several lessons. Two important ones are:

1. There is no evidence that there is a safe level of beryllium exposure; it would be prudent public health policy to end the industrial use of beryllium, except in those uses where substitution is not possible.

2. The interpretation of scientific data by those with financial incentives must be discounted. Scientists employed by the beryllium industry defended an outdated standard long after it was correctly recognized as inadequate by independent scientists. In particular, work by scientists employed by firms specializing in product defense must be seen for what it is: advocacy, rather than science.

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Dr. Michaels;
Thanks again for your efforts involving beryllium issues. As one whose quality of life suffers daily from Chronic Beryllium Disease, I cannot state strongly enough the need for more realistic control of beryllium's use. Before retiring this year, I had pulmonary and skin reactions to beryllium levels far below even the Department of Energy's levels, which are tenfold lower than the archaic "taxicab standard" which OSHA uses. There is a need for more public awareness of the small amounts of beryllium in everyday products which may lead to sensitization and disease. Substitute materials were found for asbestos, the same can hold true for beryllium in most cases.

Glenn Bell
Oak Ridge, TN

By Glenn Bell (not verified) on 02 Jul 2008 #permalink

Someday someone must review the actions of DOE. There is a data set, the most comprehensive data set, of beryllium exposure and health outcomes. DOE actually spent millions analyzing the data set. The head of DOE ESH and medical knows and supports suppression of the data. This data points to the safe exposure level. DOE chose instead to waste billions and ignore truth. Those involved should be publicly embarrassed a la Scooter Libby. DOE knowingly and willfully ignored safety and exposed their (contractor) people at levels above the known safe limits including the old OSHA limit, duh. They would now like everyone to believe there was no safe level of exposure. Again this is a lie, there is good evidence of a safe level.....