Los Alamos scientists have developed a colorimetric analysis – comparison of a colour change to known standards, similar to the common litmus test for measuring the pH of a water solution – for real-time detection of beryllium contamination on surfaces.
Beryllium is widely used in industry and in nuclear weapons applications because of its unique materials properties but inhaling fine particulate beryllium is a health hazard to workers because it triggers an autoimmune response in an estimated 1 to 6 percent of exposed individuals.
Because of its use in nuclear weapons and its growing application in industry, Los Alamos researchers Tammy Taylor and Nan Sauer became interested in studying the chemical and environmental behaviour of beryllium. Taylor and Sauer realised in order to do their research efficiently and with the highest degree of safety they needed to develop a rapid test to assess beryllium contamination.
The beryllium detection technique involves wiping the surfaces of the lab with a prepared pad and then adding a solution. If the pad turns blue, beryllium is present; if it remains orange, then the surface is free of significant contamination.
The present method for detecting beryllium in the workplace is costly and time consuming. It may take days or weeks to obtain results of laboratory analysis. In many cases work cannot be performed until results come back indicating beryllium levels are below the acceptable surface contamination limit.
Taylor’s beryllium colorimetric test is not meant to replace the existing method that can quantify the amount of beryllium on a surface, but to allow a worker to get a quick, qualitative result indicating the effectiveness of housekeeping efforts and contamination control.
Preparing the pads and performing the detection test for beryllium are simple tasks. The pads are soaked in two solutions, dried and then used to wipe the potentially contaminated surface. After wiping, the pad is treated with another solution and formation of a blue colour indicates beryllium. The whole process takes less than one hour and the materials for each test cost less than a dollar.
‘We’ve conducted this test with a variety of potential interferences like cutting fluids (used in machining metals), mineral oil, common household cleansers and dust to see if they interact with the beryllium and give a false negative,’ said Taylor. ‘We’ve also done the test with other metals that may be present in the machine shops or at beryllium contaminated sites to make sure that the pads don’t register false positives.’
The beryllium colorimetric test developed by Los Alamos builds upon an earlier beryllium measuring technique developed by Russian scientists.
Beryllium’s properties make the metal an ideal choice for many industrial applications. It is lighter than aluminium, stiffer than steel, remains solid at high temperatures and can absorb large amounts of heat.
‘This test has the potential to give us preliminary information very quickly and at low cost,’ said Gary Whitney, an industrial hygienist at Los Alamos who routinely conducts beryllium monitoring. ‘We are in the process of seeing if this could be developed into a more quantitative method and not just a quick screening method. I have conducted some preliminary side-by-side tests using Taylor’s technique and the quantitative analytical technique. The initial results look promising.’