Employees, Visitors of New Mexico Lab Exposed to Toxic Substance

A spokesman for the Los Alamos National Laboratory said Wednesday that employees and visitors have a low risk of becoming sickened by a contamination of beryllium, a substance that can cause lung disease.

Kevin Roark, a lab spokesman, said nearly 1,900 people were being notified about the possible exposure. He said no one at the lab had become ill from the substance, which is hazardous in a particulate or finely powdered form.

Inhalation can result in chronic beryllium disease, which can impair breathing, but only about 2 percent of the population is genetically susceptible, he said.

"The risks are low. The chances of exposure are remote. Statistically, the chances of getting sick are even more remote," Roark said.

Los Alamos uses the extremely light, non-radioactive metal in nuclear weapons research.

The lab first discovered the problem in November after a sampling found beryllium in an area that stores surplus materials. Officials do not know where it came from.

Los Alamos decided to notify everyone who went through the area from 2001 — when it was last tested for beryllium — through December, Roark said.

About 240 people work in the area, but visitors included about 1,000 former and current lab employees and 650 other people who toured the restricted area, Roark said.

"The vast majority of people who went into there were on very short tours. They just walked through," Roark said. "So their risk is practically zero."

The lab is offering a beryllium sensitivity test to those who might have been exposed and will arrange a consultation with an industrial hygienist for anyone concerned about exposure.