TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) _ The nation's largest supplier of beryllium _ a metal vital to the defense industry _ withheld evidence for more than 20 years showing exposure to the material could sicken workers even when the federal safety limit was met, The Blade reported Tuesday.

Since the 1940s, hundreds of workers exposed to the metal dust at weapons plants have contracted beryllium disease, a sometimes fatal lung illness. Government officials knew about the danger but allowed continued exposure at defense plants, the newspaper reported in a six-part series that began Sunday.

The metal is used in missiles, bombs and jet fighters.

Brush Well Inc., based in Cleveland, played down the risks of beryllium, the newspaper said. One instructional video compared the risks of working at Brush with hiking in the woods, where ``there may be a few hidden hazards along the way.''

Beryllium disease has contributed to the deaths of at least 32 Brush workers and neighbors since the 1940s, the Blade said, citing industry records and death certificates.

Brush Wellman was told in 1974 by NGK Insulators of Japan that its workers had developed beryllium disease at exposures below the U.S. safety limit

``This is shocking to me that they had this information,'' said Dr. Peter Infante, director of standards review at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Three years later, Brush officials testified at federal hearings that the existing limit clearly protected workers.

The company has ``proven beyond a doubt'' that the federal limit ``is completely safe'' in terms of preventing disease, wrote Martin Powers, a now-retired Brush executive.

He told the newspaper that some statements were ``probably a little too dogmatic and definitive for the state of knowledge at the time.''

Current officials of Brush Wellman, which has plants in five countries and 11 states, acknowledged that they had never consistently kept exposures under the federal limit at the company's largest plant, in Elmore, near Toledo, the newspaper said.

Hugh Hanes, the company's vice president for government affairs, said Tuesday the company would not comment further until the newspaper series is finished.