METALS – KNOWN CARCINOGEN (IARC 1)
Beryllium (chemical symbol Be) is a silver-gray coloured metallic element that occurs naturally at low concentrations in the earth’s crust.[1,2] Two kinds of beryllium minerals are mined commercially, bertrandite and beryl (of which emeralds are a type).
Beryllium and its compounds have been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as Group 1 agents, carcinogenic to humans, with a well-established link to lung cancer.[2,4] The 2012 review of Class 1 carcinogens by IARC reaffirmed this classification.
Beryllium is highly sensitizing, even at very low levels of exposure. Exposure can cause acute beryllium disease (ABD) and chronic beryllium disease (CBD). ABD is a condition that resembles pneumonia. It can occur after short-term, high levels of exposure to beryllium (>1 mg/m3). CBD is an inflammatory lung disease that causes fibrosis. The relationship between sensitization to beryllium and subsequent disease development is not fully understood. In addition, there is no known lower limit for beryllium sensitization and development of CBD. Dermal contact can also lead to an allergic response.
Regulations and Guidelines
Occupational exposure limits (OEL) [6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20]
|Canadian Jurisdictions||Substance||OEL (mg/m3)|
|Canada Labour Code||Beryllium and compounds, as Be||0.00005 [i, sk, dsen, rsen]|
|AB, NB, NT. NU, SK||Beryllium and compounds, as Be||0.002
|BC, MB, NB, NL, NS, PE||Beryllium and compounds, as Be||0.00005 [i, sk, dsen, rsen]|
|ON||Beryllium and compounds, as Be||0.00005 [i] [sk, for soluble compounds only]|
|QC||Beryllium and compounds, as Be||0.00015 [sen, em]|
|ACGIH 2020 TLV||Beryllium and compounds, as Be||0.00005 [i, sk, sen]|
mg/m3 = milligrams per cubic meter
sk = easily absorbed through the skin
dsen = dermal sensitization
rsen = respiratory sensitization
sen = potential for sensitization
i = inhalable fraction
stel = short term exposure limit (15 min. maximum)
em = exposure must be reduced to the minimum
ACGIH = American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists
TLV = threshold limit value
Canadian environmental guidelines and standards*
|Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist||Not Permitted||2015|
|Ontario Ambient Air Quality Criteria||24-hour: 0.01 µg/m3 (for beryllium and compounds)||2016|
|Ontario’s Air Pollution – Local Air Quality Regulation||24-hour standard: 0.01 µg/m3; Prohibited discharge into the air if the concentration of beryllium exceeds the standard||2020|
|Quebec’s Clean Air Regulation||1 year limit: 0.0004 µg/m3; Prohibited discharge into the air if the concentration of beryllium exceeds the standard||2011|
|BC’s Contaminated Sites Regulation, BC Reg 375/96||Sets soil standards for the protection of human health:
Agricultural and low density residential sites: 85 μg/g
Urban park and high density residential sites: 150 μg/g
Commercial sites: 500 μg/g
Industrial sites: 15,000 μg/g
Drinking water: 8 µg/L
*Standards are legislated and legally enforceable, while guidelines (including Ontario ambient air quality criteria) describe concentrations of contaminants in the environment (e.g. air, water) that are protective against adverse health, environmental, or aesthetic (e.g. odour) effects
|Health Canada||DSL – high priority substance with lowest potential for exposure||2006|
|National Classification System for Contaminated Sites||Rank: “High hazard”||2008|
|PMRA List of formulants||List 4B: List 4B contains formulants, some of which may be toxic, for which there are sufficient data to reasonably conclude that the specific use pattern of the pest control product will not adversely affect public health and the environment.||2020|
DSL = domestic substance list
Beryllium was not included in other Canadian government guidelines, standards, or chemical listings reviewed.
Beryllium metal is used in aircraft/satellite structures, x-ray transmission windows, spacecraft instrumentation, nuclear weapons, mirrors, and computer and audio components. In alloys, beryllium increases strength as well as thermal and electrical conductivity, making it useful in consumer goods like automobiles, computers, sports equipment (especially bike frames), and dental bridges. Beryllium oxide is typically used for specialty ceramics in electrical and high-technology applications.
Canadian Production and Trade
The United States exported 13 tonnes of beryllium to Canada in 2021, and remains the largest global exporter of such, exporting 170 tonnes annually.[29,30]
Production and trade
|Export||3 t (of ‘Articles of beryllium, n.e.s.’)||2021|
|Import||14 t (of ‘Articles of beryllium, n.e.s.’)||2021|
t = tonne
Environmental Exposures Overview
Sources of environmental exposure to beryllium include burning coal and fuel oil. Residual beryllium left on work garments may also lead to exposures in the home.
Beryllium is found at low levels geologically in Canada, mostly in northern British Columbia and southern Yukon, as well as the Northwest Territories.
No household products are listed as containing Beryllium in the Consumer Product Information Database in the United States.[33,34]
Occupational Exposures Overview
Inhalation is the most important route of occupational exposure. CAREX Canada estimates that approximately 3,800 Canadians are exposed to beryllium in their workplace. The largest industrial groups exposed are building equipment contractors, residential building construction, and automotive repair and maintenance. Other important industries where beryllium exposure occurs are non-residential building construction and medical equipment and supplies manufacturing.
The primary occupational groups exposed are construction trades helpers, electricians, welders, and dental technologists. Additional groups that may also be exposed include workers involved in beryllium alloy production, metals and related products manufacturing, nuclear reactor operation, and electric and electronic equipment production.
Although only a small number of workers are exposed to high levels worldwide, the number of workers exposed to low levels is increasing. This increase is due to increased use of beryllium in the aircraft, aerospace, nuclear, and electronics industries.
For more information, see the occupational exposure estimate for beryllium.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Theodore W. Gray
- Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en Sécurité du travail (IRSST). Speciation and characterization of beryllium dusts (2005) (PDF, French)
- US Geological Survey. Minerals Yearbook: Beryllium (1999) (PDF)
- International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS) INCHEM. Concise International Chemical Assessment Document 32: Beryllium and beryllium compounds (2001)
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As a national organization, our work extends across borders into many Indigenous lands throughout Canada. We gratefully acknowledge that our host institution, the University of British Columbia Point Grey campus, is located on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) people.