In 1968, Health, Education and Welfare Officials were informed by private research sources that exposure to the metal beryllium could cause fatal respiratory disease and cancer: After months went by without government action (beryllium is a critical component in aerospace and nuclear industries), a Massachusetts researcher threatened to make her findings public. At that point, a senior HEW official wrote a memo, warning: “This would be a bombshell if her views would ever get into print.” To avoid such a bombshell, the government initiated its own tests, and when they found strong evidence of the metal’s danger as a human poison and carcinogen, they ordered more tests.
Finally in 1976, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) concluded that perhaps the 30,000 workers who are exposed to beryllium dust and fumes should have more protection. They proposed new regulations cutting worker exposure from two micrograms to one microgram per cubic meter of air.
The two companies that produce beryllium insisted that they could not meet the proposed standard with current technology. Suddenly, HEW started getting calls from industrialists and politicians, strongly suggesting the proposed new standards were ill-advised: Senator John Glenn, whose home state of Ohio manufactures the product, began badgering Joseph A. Califano, Jr., HEW Secretary, for an independent review of the whole issue.
Subsequently, James R. Schlesinger, now head of the Department of Energy, wrote Ray Marshall, Secretary of Labor, saying that a study by his department concluded that the cost of meeting the proposed exposure standards for beryllium would drive the only two non-Communist producers of the metal out of business.
“The loss of beryllium production capability would seriously impact our ability to develop and produce weapons for the nuclear stockpile and, consequently, adversely affect our national security,” wrote Mr. Schlesinger.
Thus, the issue of national security, not corporate profits, took precedence over the health and lives of 30,000 American workers.
The lack of public awareness of this issue as well as the potential danger to 30,000 workers and probably more Americans qualifies this story to be nominated as one of the “best censored” stories of 1978.
Esquire, November, 1978, p. 122, “Warning: National Security May Be Hazardous to Your Health,” by Edward Sorel.