_PUBLIC HEALTH Environmental Toxins

_Deadly Link

Could exposure to a rare metal in the workplace explain the occurrence of a mysterious inflammatory disease?

_Igor Burstyn

Burstyn is an associate professor of environmental and occupational health in the School of Public Health.

As computers and smartphones become bigger factors in our lives, more workers are being exposed to a toxic metal that was once limited mostly to the workplaces of welders and manufacturers of atomic bombs: beryllium.

Nowadays, beryllium exposure is more widespread because it’s used in the manufacture of computers and cell phones, says Igor Burstyn, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health in the School of Public Health.

In a 10-year study funded by the Alberta Health Foundation for Medical Research and the Canadian National Sarcoidosis Organisation, he and other researchers looked at whether beryllium was causing new cases of sarcoidosis, a rare but serious inflammatory disease.


Sarcoidosis can lead to fatigue, joint pain, blurry vision, shortness of breath and arthritis.

Burstyn and researchers from the University of Alberta, University of Calgary and Alberta Ministry of Health identified 665 cases of sarcoidosis from patients who were diagnosed in Canada from 1999 to 2005. Patients were evaluated through a questionnaire and DNA extraction. Researchers also calculated patients’ level of beryllium exposure based on their type of job and how long they were employed. They also looked for patients with a genetic mutation called Glu69.

They found that beryllium exposure on the job is a factor in some cases of this disease, especially if patients had the Glu69 mutation, which made them more sensitive to beryllium.

“This gene does not make you sick. It’s not the mutation that will give anybody the disease. It’s only a mutation that makes you vulnerable,” says Burstyn.

This could lead to more warnings, prevention and more accurate diagnosis for people who work in these fields, he says.