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Substance Profile

 

Beryllium & compounds fact sheet

Smoke stack - Greg Rippon

The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) provides information on the types and amounts of pollutants being emitted in the Australian community.

This page provides facts about beryllium & compounds. It describes how you might be exposed to this substance, how exposure might effect you and the environment, common uses, comparative data about beryllium & compounds and its physical and chemical properties.

For more information about some of the terms used in this page, see the NPI glossary.

The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) holds data for all sources of beryllium & compounds emissions in Australia.

Health effects

What effect might beryllium & compounds have on my health?

This depends on how much beryllium a person has been exposed to, for how long, and current state of health. Breathing high levels of beryllium dust or fumes may irritate the respiratory tract, causing chemical pneumonitis (inflammation of the lungs). The lung damage may heal if breathing beryllium dust is stopped. Some people may become hypersensitive or allergic to beryllium on repeated or prolonged exposure to low levels of dust particles. This condition is called chronic beryllium disease (cough, weight loss, weakness) and can occur long after exposure to small amounts of beryllium. Both the short-term, pneumonia-like disease and the chronic beryllium disease can cause death. Swallowing beryllium has not been reported to cause harmful effects in humans because very little beryllium can move from the stomach and intestines into the bloodstream. Repeated or prolonged beryllium contact may cause skin sensitisation and, in the case of scraped or cut skin, rashes or ulcers. Inhalation of beryllium and its compounds is considered to have cancer-causing potential in humans. The effects of beryllium and its compounds are not well understood to date, and not all forms of beryllium are equally toxic. Worksafe Australia classifies beryllium as very toxic by inhalation and toxic if swallowed, and as a 'probable human carcinogen'. It can be irritating to eyes, respiratory system and skin. There is the danger of serious damage to health by prolonged exposure.

How might beryllium & compounds enter my body?

Beryllium can be inhaled or ingested.

How might I be exposed to beryllium & compounds?

Because beryllium is most commonly used in high-tech devices where it is bound into electronic components, the risk of exposure in the domestic environment is negligible. Exposure to beryllium happens mostly in very specialised workplaces (e.g. mining or processing ores, alloy and chemical manufacturing with beryllium, machining or recycling metals containing beryllium, nuclear industries), and near some industry or hazardous waste sites. Very rarely, tobacco smoke containing beryllium from leaves high in beryllium may be inhaled.

See Sources for more information.

What are the beryllium & compounds health guidelines?

Worksafe Australia :
The eight hour time weighted average (TWA) exposure limit is 0.002 mg/m3.

The Australian NOHSC National Exposure Standards Database link is probably the most useful source of information.

Note that the emissions data in the NPI database is not directly comparable with these guidelines.

Environmental effects

What effect might beryllium & compounds have on the environment?

Acute toxic effects may include the death of animals, birds, or fish, and death or low growth rate in plants. Acute effects are seen two to four days after animals or plants come in contact with a toxic chemical substance. Beryllium is more toxic in soft water than in hard water. Beryllium and its compounds have high acute toxicity to aquatic life. No data are available on the short-term effects of beryllium on plants, birds, or land animals. Chronic toxic effects may include shortened lifespan, reproductive problems, lower fertility, and changes in appearance or behaviour. Beryllium and its compounds are considered to have high chronic toxicity to aquatic life. No data are available on the long-term effects of beryllium on plants, birds, or land animals. Fish do not build up beryllium in their bodies from the surrounding water to any great extent.

How might beryllium & compounds enter the environment?

Beryllium can be transported as particles released into the atmosphere or as dissolved compounds in natural waters.

Where in the environment do beryllium & compounds end up?

Beryllium is a naturally occurring element and low background levels in air, water and food are found everywhere. Beryllium can enter the environment from rocks, soil, and industrial emissions and waste. Airborne beryllium dust from the burning of coal and oil settles to the soil and water. Beryllium from rocks and soil can enter natural water systems, but because most beryllium compounds settle to the bottom as particles natural waters contain very little dissolved beryllium. However, higher concentrations of beryllium may be found in acidified waters. Soils tend to fix beryllium in water soluble compounds in forms that are not bioavailable to plants.

What are the beryllium & compounds environmental guidelines?

Australian Water Quality Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Waters: (ANZECC, 1992):
Maximum of 4 micrograms per Litre (i.e. 0.000004 g/L) in fresh waters.

Note that the emissions data in the NPI database is not directly comparable with these guidelines.

Common uses

Worldwide, industrial grade beryl is used as a feedstock for beryllium metal, alloys and oxide, all of which have many high-tech applications particularly in the nuclear, electronic and ceramic industries. Beryllium is a structural material in space technology, inertial guidance systems, additive to rocket fuels, moderator and reflector of neutrons in nuclear reactors (e.g. at ANSTO, Lucas Heights). Pure beryllium metal is used to make aircraft disc brakes, nuclear weapons and reactors, aircraft-satellite-space vehicle structures and instruments, X-ray transmission windows, missile parts, fuel containers, precision instruments, rocket propellants, navigational systems, heat shields, and mirrors. Beryllium alloys such as beryllium-copper are used in electrical connectors and relays, springs, precision instruments, aircraft engine parts, non-sparking tools, submarine cable housings and pivots, wheels, and pinions. More specifically, beryllium oxide is used in the manufacture of specialty electrical and high-technology ceramics, special glass, electronic heat sinks, electron tubes, electrical insulators, electronics components, microwave oven components, nuclear fuels and nuclear moderators, gyroscopes, military vehicle armour, rocket nozzles, and laser structural components. Beryllium chloride is used in refining beryllium ores and as a chemical reagent. Beryllium fluoride is used in refining beryllium and manufacturing beryllium alloys, and as a chemical reagent. Beryllium nitrate is used as a chemical reagent, a gas mantle hardener and in refining beryllium ores.

Beryllium and its compounds are mainly used in Australia in very small quantities in electronic equipment. The relevance of beryllium and its compounds to Australia 's environmental and public health stems not from its commercial use, but its presence in emissions from combustion of fossil fuels in, for example, coal-fired power stations.

Sources of emissions

Industry sources

Mining of ores containing beryllium can contribute to higher levels in air, soil and water, i.e. small quantities of beryl are produced as a by-product of feldspar mining at Broken Hill (NSW). Emissions to air can result from combustion of coal and oil in power plants.

Diffuse sources, and industry sources included in diffuse emissions data

Some hazardous waste sites and tobacco smoke.

Natural sources

Pure beryllium is not found in nature. Beryllium compounds can be found in mineral rocks, soil, coal, oil, and volcanic dust.

Transport sources

Beryllium emissions are normally not associated with mobile sources.

Consumer products that may contain beryllium & compounds

Small quantities can be found in products such as personal computers, televisions, calculators, and microwave ovens.

Comparison to other substances

NPI rank

Approximately 400 substances were considered for inclusion on the NPI reporting list. A ranking and total hazard score was given based on health and environmental hazards and human and environmental exposure to the substance.

Beryllium & compounds was ranked as 76 out of 400. The total hazard score taking into account both human health and environmental criteria is 4.0.

On a health hazard rating of 0 - 3 beryllium & compounds registers 2.3. A score of 3 represents a very high hazard to health, 2 represents a medium hazard and 1 is harmful to health.

On an environmental rating of 0 - 3 beryllium & compounds registers 1.7. A score of 3 represents a very high hazard to the environment and 0 a negligible hazard.

Factors taken into account to obtain this ranking and these scores include the extent of the material's toxic or poisonous nature and/or its lack of toxicity, and the measure of its ability to remain active in the environment and whether it accumulates in living organisms. It does not take into account exposure to the substance. Environmental exposure is reflected in the NPI rank for this substance (see comparative data below). A substance that scores highly as an environmental hazard is oxides of nitrogen at 3.0 and one of the lower scores is carbon monoxide at 0.8. A substance that scores highly as a health hazard is arsenic at 2.3 and one of the lowest scores is ammonia at 1.0.

Total hazard rating

Physical and chemical properties

Substance name Beryllium & compounds
CASR number 7440-41-7
Molecular formula Be
Synonyms Glucinium
Beryllium compounds include beryllium oxide (CASR# 1304-56-9), beryllium chloride (CASR# 7787-47-5), beryllium fluoride (CASR# 7787-49-7), beryllium hydroxide (CASR# 13327-32-7), beryllium phosphate (CASR# 13598-15-7), beryllium nitrate (CASR# 13597-99-4), beryllium sulfate (CASR# 13510-49-1), and beryllium
Physical properties:
Pure beryllium is a hard, brittle, silvery metal.

Atomic Number: 4
Atomic Mass: 9.0
Melting Point (C): 1278
Boiling Point (C): 2970
Specific Gravity: 1.85

Properties vary widely depending on the particular compound. Beryllium oxide is a very good conductor of heat and a good electrical insulator. The beryllium-copper alloy has high strength, and good thermal and electrical conductivity. Generally, beryllium compounds have no particular smell and their flash points and flammability limits are unknown.

Beryllium oxide is a white powder with melting point of 2530 C and specific gravity of 3.0.

Beryllium chloride is a white to faintly yellow powder, deliquescent, with melting point of 399 C and a boiling point of 482 C.

Beryllium fluoride is a glassy, hygroscopic solid with melting point of 545 C and specific gravity of 2.0.

Beryllium nitrate is a white to slightly yellow crystals with melting point of 60 C).

Beryllium sulfate has a melting point of 550 C).

Chemical properties:
The two most important ores mined for the recovery of beryllium are beryl (CASR# 1302-52-9) and bertrandite (CASR# 12161-82-9). Very pure gem-quality beryl is better known as either aquamarine or emerald. Most of the beryllium ore mined is processed into beryllium oxide which is then reduced to beryllium metal or converted to various beryllium compounds. Water solubility of beryllium and its salts varies, with beryllium chloride, fluoride, nitrate, phosphate, and sulfate all being soluble in water. Other compounds are either insoluble (e.g. beryl, beryllium oxide) or only slightly soluble. Beryllium metal exposed to air forms an oxide coating which protects it from further oxidation, similar to aluminium. Beryllium reacts with strong acids and strong bases, and forms shock sensitive mixtures with some chlorinated solvents such as carbon tetrachloride and trichloroethylene.

Sources of information used in preparing this fact sheet

There is more information that may be useful in understanding some of the issues surrounding the NPI.

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