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Granite Countertops: Nuke Your Food Without the Microwave

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Lake George, NYIs your granite countertop radioactive? Chances are good that it is. However, is it harmful? That's the debate that is raging as the health and granite industries lock horns.

Granite CountertopThe granite countertop has become de rigueur in high-end kitchens as homeowners clamor for the natural esthetics and durability that a granite countertop affords. But in recent weeks media reports revealing the potential for radiation emitting from certain granites has left some homeowners re-thinking their purchase.

In Dr. Lynn Sugarman's case, she ripped those countertops right outta there.

The Teaneck, New Jersey physician purchased her summer home two years ago and was astounded to find elevated levels of radon in the home during a routine inspection. After bringing in a radon measurement and mitigation specialist, the source of the radiation was traced to the countertop in the kitchen. It was reported in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that Geiger counter readings were ten times higher over the richly grained granite countertop, than elsewhere in the home.

When the technician recommended to Dr. Sugarman that she keep her pregnant daughter, who would be visiting for the weekend, several feet from the countertop to be safe, Sugarman took no chances and had her gorgeous countertops removed that same day, and analyzed at a lab.

Her local Department of Health determined that the granite contained high levels of uranium, which is both radioactive, and releases radon gas as it decays over time. Sugarman admits the health risk to her and her family was probably small, but she didn't want to take any chances.

And therein lay the debate: no one argues that granite has the potential to emit radon gas, or has the propensity to be radioactive. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Marble Institute of America (MIA) admit as much. The bigger question, is just what IS safe? That answer has a lot to do with personal opinion and tolerance, but according to the EPA granite countertops pose no 'significant' health risk.

The key word there is 'significant'.

"While natural minerals such as granite may occasionally emit radon gas, the levels of radon attributable to such sources are not typically high," the EPA statement said. "EPA believes the principal source of radon in homes is soil gas that is drawn indoors through a natural suction process.

"Granite is a natural mineral formed by earth's geology," the statement continues. "It is mined and used to produce commercial products such as countertops. It is possible for any granite sample to contain varying concentrations of uranium that can produce radon gas. Some granite used in countertops may contribute variably to indoor radon levels. However, EPA has no reliable data to conclude that types of granite used in countertops are significantly increasing indoor radon levels.

"Construction materials such as concrete, cinder blocks, bricks, and granite contain small amounts of radioactive materials that are found naturally in the materials used to make them."

Part of the problem may lie in the fact that there are upwards of 900 different varieties of granite available from 63 countries, and the amount of radon, and radiation may depend upon where the granite hails from in the world. Thus, granite itself is less of an issue than the ultimate source.

And it should be noted that there is agreement from health physicists and radiation experts with regard to the extremely low levels of radiation emitted from most granite countertops. However, the EPA found itself in the midst of what has turned out to be the Great Granite Debate after receiving scores of reports from radiation technicians, and from concerned homeowners alarmed at the radiation clicking away the Geiger counter when the instrument was passed over their expensive, imported granite countertop.

Lou Witt is with the EPA's Indoor Environment's Division. He was quoted in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel as saying earlier this month "there is no known safe level of radon, or radiation," he said, adding that scientists agree, "Any exposure increases your health risk."

Whether or not the EPA is softening its stance with a nod to the huge marble industry remains unclear. However, it has been reported that the EPA recommends taking action if radon gas levels in the home exceeds four picocuries per liter of air—which has been identified as carrying the same risk for cancer as smoking a half-pack of cigarettes per day.

In Dr. Sugarman's kitchen, the readings were 100 picocuries per liter.

The debate rages on. "Every time researchers have applied rigorous scientific standards to testing, the results have found that granite countertops pose no risk," says Jim Hogan, President of the MIA. "Repeated studies have found that granite is safe. Unfortunately, some recent junk science being reported as fact only serves to panic the public, not inform it. Our goal is to end this fear mongering by facilitating the creation of a real scientific standard for testing granite countertops."

A recent study by Consumer Reports also concluded that there is no health risk stemming from your granite countertops, and found no radon gas at all released from any of the samples it tested. The specific samples were not identified in the Sun-Sentinel report.

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking and is considered especially dangerous to smokers, whose lungs are already compromised. Children and developing fetuses are vulnerable to radiation, which can cause other forms of cancer.

And beyond that, is the responsibility of those vending the granite, to communicate this fact to their prospective clients. Would most clients be told that purchasing a granite countertop—and an expensive option at that—could raise the radon level in the home? And perhaps more significantly, were the buyer to choose one of the more exotic and striated varieties originating from Brazil and Namibia, he or she could be raising radon levels significantly over other varieties. Brazilian granite is a top-seller.

As the two opposing camps dig in, it will be curious to gauge the response of homeowners with a predisposition to cancer, and an invoice for an expensive granite countertop amongst the rest of the paperwork for their kitchen renovation.

Perhaps it is low risk. But perhaps you would prefer no risk. Perhaps you would have appreciated knowing about this risk beforehand. And perhaps you are now living every moment of your life, afraid to go into the kitchen, but unable financially to make a change. Hell, you might even still be paying for that granite countertop.

Just maybe, a qualified attorney could help you find a way to pay for it…or better yet, get it outta there.

The last word goes to Stanley Liebert. He's the quality assurance director at CMT Laboratories in Clifton Park, New Jersey and the guy who took the radiation measurements in Dr. Sugarman's home.

"It's not that all granite is dangerous," he said. "But I've seen a few that might heat up your Cheerios a little."



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