Health Hazard Shuts Building at Los Alamos

Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory announced today that they are investigating a mysterious case of beryllium contamination. Recent tests revealed that a storage building contained high levels of beryllium dust, which if inhaled can cause people to become especially sensitive to further exposure and eventually lead to lung disease. Officials could not pin down when the contamination occurred because the building, which has not been used for beryllium processing for many years, was last given a clean bill of health in 2001. Laboratory officials are notifying 1800 people who since that time either worked in or visited the building, in a part of the lab called Technical Area 41.

The beryllium contamination was discovered through happenstance. Los Alamos spokesperson Kevin Roark says that a package arrived in Technical Area 41 late last year bearing a beryllium warning sticker. Because the package appeared to be damaged, safety officers tested it for beryllium residues. Those tests, however, revealed much more extensive contamination in the area.

According to Roark, the tests found levels of beryllium dust as high as "a couple of hundred" micrograms per 100 cm2. This far exceeds the lab's limit, which is 0.2 micrograms per 100 cm2. A panel of experts convened by the U.S. National Academies concluded last year that any exposure to beryllium, no matter how small, can be hazardous, and studies have shown that some people are much more prone to beryllium sensitivity than others.

The laboratory is offering to test everyone who spent time in that building, to see if they have developed beryllium sensitivity. The laboratory estimates that 2% of the 240 employees who worked in the area could have developed beryllium sensitivity, and that some of them might have become ill. The risk to those who only visited the facility is extremely small, according to Roark.

Roark says the contaminated building is now closed and undergoing a "full cleanup" that is expected to be finished next month. The laboratory is also going through records of the work carried out at Technical Area 41 for clues about how the beryllium got there.