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August 5, 2007


UMDNJ's Finkel stresses beryllium's toxicity

By Josh Margolin, Star-Ledger Staff

Adam Finkel, Ivy League scientist, public health expert and federal
regulator, was angry.

As a regional administrator with the U.S. Occupational Safety and
Health Administration in 2002, Finkel vented when a trade magazine
reporter simply asked: "Is there anything else going on?"

"Well, now that you mention it," Finkel said that day in San Diego,
"this beryllium thing is really bothering me."

Beryllium is a lightweight metal used to make everything from jet
fighters to electronics. It also is extremely dangerous to workers if
its dust is inhaled. Finkel believed OSHA -- the federal agency whose
job is to make sure the workplace is safe -- wasn't doing enough to
protect its own inspectors who visited plants where the chemical is

Suddenly, the barely known bureaucrat became a high-profile

In the five years since, Finkel, now a professor in environmental and
occupational health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New
Jersey, has won national acclaim for his efforts to draw attention to
the dangers of beryllium -- a substance far more dangerous than
asbestos -- in the workplace.

Even though federal officials opposed his push for more-stringent
testing for OSHA workers, they eventually adopted them. The feds paid
him a $500,000 whistleblower settlement. And in June, a U.S. district
judge in Trenton ordered the U.S. Labor Department to give him
beryllium-related data he plans to use in researching the dangers to

"Adam was passionate about the issue," said Kevin Maurer, the reporter
whose November 2002 story in Inside OSHA magazine featured the
anonymous comments that started Finkel's fight with the government.
"They're OSHA -- their job is to protect workers, and they wouldn't do
it. He took them to task and he's one of the few people, under this
administration in particular, who forced them to do things they're
supposed to be doing."


Finkel, 48, never set out to be a whistleblower. An only child from
Philadelphia who spent vacation time with his grandmother in Atlantic
City, he was a science prodigy. By age 16, he was attending Harvard
University, where he later gained master's and doctoral degrees.

He made his mark as an expert in the science of risk assessment, and
joined OSHA in 1995. He later headed the agency's Rocky Mountain
region from Denver.

The problems of beryllium quickly rose to the top of Finkel's agenda
with reports of its devastating effects, including "chronic beryllium

Beryllium has been used in combination with other metals for decades
in jets, missiles and nuclear weapons. In recent years, the light and
strong element has found its way into cell phones, computers, tennis
rackets, golf clubs and even dental work. But exposure to beryllium
dust -- even in casual and infrequent circumstances, such as washing
the clothing of someone who had come in contact with it -- can cause
incurable, and often fatal, lung disease. Tests to detect the disease
cost up to $200 each.


When the Department of Energy tightened its rules for workplace
exposure and began testing workers, Finkel pushed for OSHA to do the
same for its inspectors.

"It was such an obvious decision," Finkel said during an interview
last week at Princeton University, where he has been a visiting
scholar since 2005. "I didn't think it would be an issue." OSHA
employees, he argued, needed to know whether they were in jeopardy.
And, he said, the public should know that even inspectors who have
limited contact with beryllium can contract lung disease.

"We're OSHA," said Finkel. "Why are we not doing this?"

John Henshaw, who was the assistant Labor secretary in charge of OSHA
at the time, said Finkel's request was turned down in part because of
questions about the testing procedures. "I don't regret the decision,"
he said last week.

However, OSHA employees are now being tested mostly in the way Finkel
originally advocated.

On Nov. 22, 2002, the day the trade magazine ran the story built
around Finkel's argument with his colleagues, Henshaw called in Finkel
and told officials that private internal discussions need to stay
confidential. He then moved to transfer Finkel to Washington for a
non-supervisory position. Finkel alleged Henshaw was retaliating
against him. Henshaw denies that.

"I like Adam," Henshaw said. "He's a good technical guy and he does
well in the technical areas and I like him personally. I feel for him.
I wanted to make sure that Adam was successful."

Henshaw said he wanted to transfer Finkel because "regional
administrator was not his forte." Finkel complained to the federal
merit system board and came away with a $500,000 settlement.


So far, 11 of the first 271 OSHA employees tested had beryllium
exposure. Finkel has said that's far greater than scientists expected.

"It's not about embarrassing the agency," Finkel said. "But I don't
think these people would have been tested if it didn't happen the way
it did."

After leaving OSHA, Finkel accepted the UMDNJ job and moved his wife
and daughter to Pennington. But he continued sparring with the agency.
In an effort to learn more about the effects of beryllium and other
contaminants, he requested OSHA's chemical-exposure database. He sued
when OSHA refused to give it to him.

On June 29, Judge Mary Cooper ruled for Finkel. He doesn't have the
documents yet because the federal government wants a "clarification"
of the decision, suggesting some records need to be kept confidential
to protect trade secrets.

Experts say beryllium is dangerous only when people are exposed to
dust without protective gear. Finkel and others want to use the
information to determine if workers such as dental technicians are in
jeopardy from sanding down fillings and crowns in the office.

Lee Newman, one of the nation's top experts in beryllium-related
illness, said: "Beryllium is, gram for gram, one of the most toxic
materials that we know of. If it gets inhaled, it is especially
hazardous in remarkably low levels of the exposures.

"The uses of beryllium are proliferating, and what that means is that
increasing numbers of workers end up with exposures of beryllium who
might not be protected.

"What Adam's done is very important," Newman said. "The next steps are
to make sure that more is done, for not only other people within OSHA
who may have been exposed, but to make sure the message gets out."


BIOGRAPHY: Adam Finkel

Job: Professor of environmental and occupational health at UMDNJ;
visiting scholar at Princeton University

Former position: Rocky Mountain regional administrator, Occupational
Safety and Health Administration

Age: 48

How he made news: By going public in 2002 with the refusal of OSHA to
offer tests to inspectors who might have been exposed to potentially
fatal beryllium

Hometown: Pennington, N.J.

Where he's from: Philadelphia

Family: Married to Joanne Booth; daughter Maia, 7

Education: Bachelor's in biology, Harvard, 1979 (he finished the
course work at 19 years old); master's in public policy, Harvard,
1984; doctor of science in environmental health sciences, 1987.

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