Radioactive granite risks

30 Jul

What?s Lurking in Your Countertop?

SHORTLY before Lynn Sugarman of Teaneck, N.J., bought her summer home in Lake George, N.Y., two years ago, a routine inspection revealed it had elevated levels of radon, a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. So she called a radon measurement and mitigation technician to find the source.

“He went from room to room,” said Dr. Sugarman, a pediatrician. But he stopped in his tracks in the kitchen, which had richly grained cream, brown and burgundy granite countertops. His Geiger counter indicated that the granite was emitting radiation at levels 10 times higher than those he had measured elsewhere in the house.

“My first thought was, my pregnant daughter was coming for the weekend,” Dr. Sugarman said. When the technician told her to keep her daughter several feet from the countertops just to be safe, she said, “I had them ripped out that very day,” and sent to the state Department of Health for analysis. The granite, it turned out, contained high levels of uranium, which is not only radioactive but releases radon gas as it decays. “The health risk to me and my family was probably small,” Dr. Sugarman said, “but I felt it was an unnecessary risk.”

As the popularity of granite countertops has grown in the last decade — demand for them has increased tenfold, according to the Marble Institute of America, a trade group representing granite fabricators — so have the types of granite available. For example, one source, Graniteland ( offers more than 900 kinds of granite from 63 countries. And with increased sales volume and variety, there have been more reports of “hot” or potentially hazardous countertops, particularly among the more exotic and striated varieties from Brazil and Namibia.

“It’s not that all granite is dangerous,” said Stanley Liebert, the quality assurance director at CMT Laboratories in Clifton Park, N.Y., who took radiation measurements at Dr. Sugarman’s house. “But I’ve seen a few that might heat up your Cheerios a little.”

Allegations that granite countertops may emit dangerous levels of radon and radiation have been raised periodically over the past decade, mostly by makers and distributors of competing countertop materials. The Marble Institute of America has said such claims are “ludicrous” because although granite is known to contain uranium and other radioactive materials like thorium and potassium, the amounts in countertops are not enough to pose a health threat.

Indeed, health physicists and radiation experts agree that most granite countertops emit radiation and radon at extremely low levels. They say these emissions are insignificant compared with so-called background radiation that is constantly raining down from outer space or seeping up from the earth’s crust, not to mention emanating from manmade sources like X-rays, luminous watches and smoke detectors.

But with increasing regularity in recent months, the Environmental Protection Agency has been receiving calls from radon inspectors as well as from concerned homeowners about granite countertops with radiation measurements several times above background levels. “We’ve been hearing from people all over the country concerned about high readings,” said Lou Witt, a program analyst with the agency’s Indoor Environments Division.

Last month, Suzanne Zick, who lives in Magnolia, Tex., a small town northwest of Houston, called the E.P.A. and her state’s health department to find out what she should do about the salmon-colored granite she had installed in her foyer a year and a half ago. A geology instructor at a community college, she realized belatedly that it could contain radioactive material and had it tested. The technician sent her a report indicating that the granite was emitting low to moderately high levels of both radon and radiation, depending on where along the stone the measurement was taken.

“I don’t really know what the numbers are telling me about my risk,” Ms. Zick said. “I don’t want to tear it out, but I don’t want cancer either.”

The E.P.A. recommends taking action if radon gas levels in the home exceeds 4 picocuries per liter of air (a measure of radioactive emission); about the same risk for cancer as smoking a half a pack of cigarettes per day. In Dr. Sugarman’s kitchen, the readings were 100 picocuries per liter. In her basement, where radon readings are expected to be higher because the gas usually seeps into homes from decaying uranium underground, the readings were 6 picocuries per liter.

The average person is subjected to radiation from natural and manmade sources at an annual level of 360 millirem (a measure of energy absorbed by the body), according to government agencies like the E.P.A. and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The limit of additional exposure set by the commission for people living near nuclear reactors is 100 millirem per year. To put this in perspective, passengers get 3 millirem of cosmic radiation on a flight from New York to Los Angeles.

A “hot” granite countertop like Dr. Sugarman’s might add a fraction of a millirem per hour and that is if you were a few inches from it or touching it the entire time.

Nevertheless, Mr. Witt said, “There is no known safe level of radon or radiation.” Moreover, he said, scientists agree that “any exposure increases your health risk.” A granite countertop that emits an extremely high level of radiation, as a small number of commercially available samples have in recent tests, could conceivably expose body parts that were in close proximity to it for two hours a day to a localized dose of 100 millirem over just a few months.

David J. Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University in New York, said the cancer risk from granite countertops, even those emitting radiation above background levels, is “on the order of one in a million.” Being struck by lightning is more likely. Nonetheless, Dr. Brenner said, “It makes sense. If you can choose another counter that doesn’t elevate your risk, however slightly, why wouldn’t you?”

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. Mr. Witt said the E.P.A. is not studying health risks associated with granite countertops because of a “lack of resources.”

The Marble Institute of America plans to develop a testing protocol for granite. “We want to reassure the public that their granite countertops are safe,” Jim Hogan, the group’s president, said earlier this month “We know the vast majority of granites are safe, but there are some new exotic varieties coming in now that we’ve never seen before, and we need to use sound science to evaluate them.”

Research scientists at Rice University in Houston and at the New York State Department of Health are currently conducting studies of granite widely used in kitchen counters. William J. Llope, a professor of physics at Rice, said his preliminary results show that of the 55 samples he has collected from nearby fabricators and wholesalers, all of which emit radiation at higher-than-background levels, a handful have tested at levels 100 times or more above background.

Personal injury lawyers are already advertising on the Web for clients who think they may have been injured by countertops. “I think it will be like the mold litigation a few years back, where some cases were legitimate and a whole lot were not,” said Ernest P. Chiodo, a physician and lawyer in Detroit who specializes in toxic tort law. His kitchen counters are granite, he said, “but I don’t spend much time in the kitchen.”

As for Dr. Sugarman, the contractor of the house she bought in Lake George paid for the removal of her “hot” countertops. She replaced them with another type of granite. “But I had them tested first,” she said.

Where to Find Tests and Testers

TO find a certified technician to determine whether radiation or radon is emanating from a granite countertop, homeowners can contact the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists ( Testing costs between $100 to $300.

Information on certified technicians and do-it-yourself radon testing kits is available from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site at, as well as from state or regional indoor air environment offices, which can be found at Kits test for radon, not radiation, and cost $20 to $30. They are sold at hardware stores and online. 

Cause for Worry? Granite Fears Grip Homeowners

Radiation Fears Lead Homeowners to Request Inspection; Most Cite Little Cause for Concern

ABC News Medical Unit

July 29, 2008—

When Stephen Gladstone read reports last week that granite countertops may be a source of potentially harmful levels of radiation, two concerns immediately entered his mind.

The first had to do with the generous 7-foot-by-6-foot slab of granite covering the central island in his own kitchen.

The second had to do with the flood of phone calls he knew he would be receiving in the following days as a result of the news.

Gladstone is chief inspector and president of Stonehollow Home Inspection in Stamford, Conn., and former president of the American Society of Home Inspectors. And he says that since an article last Thursday in the New York Times cited the potential radiation and radon gas hazards associated with granite countertops, calls from concerned homeowners have spiked.

“We’ve opened up a can of worms,” he says. “In the last three days, I have gotten at least 11 calls and six or seven emails from clients who want to know what they should do.”

One such call was from a pregnant mother who had been serving her kids’ meals on granite countertops she had installed in December. Another was from a homeowner who was in the process of buying a $10,000 slab of Brazilian granite who wanted to have it tested before it was delivered to her home.

Gladstone says panic among homeowners is premature. Still, he notes in his blog, when he told his wife about the article in the Times, “it wasn’t long before one of my radon machines was sitting on the granite and the radon test was under way.”

The very idea of radiation fears from granite countertops is a concern that some say seems to have come straight out of left field. Jim Hogan, president of the Marble Institute of America (MIA), released a statement to deny there was any link between granite countertops and radiation.

“Every time researchers have applied rigorous scientific standards to testing, the results have found that granite countertops pose no risk,” Hogan says. “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.”

The MIA also pointed a finger at manufacturers of synthetic stone countertops, accusing them of fanning the flames of concern.

Worries about radiation from granite are so new, in fact, that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as yet has no protocol for testing such countertops, Gladstone says.

“If someone had said to me, ‘Why don’t you check out that granite countertop?’ we never would have thought of that until last week,” he says. “There is no protocol for testing on a countertop.”

And while the EPA has always encouraged testing of basements for radon gas, areas including kitchens and bathrooms — those in which granite countertops are most likely to be present — have been specifically excluded from testing recommendations, as these areas often have supplemental ventilation.

But David Kocher, senior scientist for the Specialists in Energy, Nuclear and Environmental Sciences (SENES) Center for Risk Analysis in Oak Ridge, Tenn., says it should not come as a shock that some granite countertops may indeed come attached with a certain level of radioactivity.

“There are some kinds of materials that have within them things like uranium at a level a little more concentrated than that of normal dirt and rock,” he says. “This kind of thing happens.”

EPA, Inspectors Short on Answers

But for many homeowners who may now find themselves avoiding their kitchen islands, the $10,000 question remains: Is it worth the worry?

“There are people, I’m sure, who have invested between $6,000 and $10,000 on a piece of natural stone to go on their kitchen counters,” Gladstone says. “You can imagine someone spending $10,000 on something and then having to throw it away.”

The EPA has been fielding this question on its Web site over the past several days. And for now, the scientists there note that in most cases, health risks are probably minimal to nonexistent.

“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 noted on its Web site in response to a question about granite countertop safety.

But, the response continued, “there are simply too many variables to generalize about the potential health risks inside a particular home that has granite countertops. … It is possible for any granite sample to contain varying concentrations of uranium that can produce radon gas.

“EPA has no reliable data to conclude that types of granite used in countertops are significantly increasing indoor radon levels.”

But while the EPA’s data on granite countertops remain inconclusive, Kocher says there are a number of sources of radiation in and around our everyday environments — which means over the course of any given day, we are exposed to a measurable dose of radiation.

These sources include certain types of building materials other than granite, such as some kinds of ceramic tile, as well as consumer products.

“The most common example that is in most everybody’s house is a smoke detector,” Kocher says. “The way these work, they have a very small amount of radioactive material in them that ionizes materials when they pass through there.

Certain lanterns used for camping have, in years past, used the radioactive material thorium in some components. Most pre-1970s watches with hands that glow in the dark owe their nighttime luminescence to radium.

“There are lots of consumer products like that that have been marketed over the years,” Kocher says.

He characterizes the level of radiation from these devices as “very, very small.”

People can also be exposed to radiation from such sources as phosphate-containing fertilizer, cosmic rays from outer space, and x-rays and other medical tests. Flying in an airplane ups exposure. So, too, does living in certain regions of the United States, where background levels of naturally occurring elements in the ground can boost exposure levels.

But despite all of these sources, according to a report issued by the NCPRM in 1987, background radiation is only responsible for about 3 percent of the average American’s total radiation exposure from all sources each year, including natural background radiation and medical exposures.

“There are people out there who will worry about almost anything,” Kocher says. And despite widespread fears over radiation, he adds, “the truth of the matter is that radiation is not a very potent cause of cancer as far as we know.”

Still, he notes, one less source of radiation in the mix is probably a good thing.

“With granite, they have not added the radiation to that to make it better or shinier,” he says. “In this case, the radiation just comes along for the ride.”

Putting Granite to the Test

Gladstone and his wife were relieved when the radon test on their granite countertop suggested they had little to worry about. Despite this, he says that the best approach for most homeowners may be to wait until more facts come to light.

“A whole bunch of people in the profession and scientists are giving it a strong look right now,” he says. “I would tell someone to wait a week before they plunk down a whole bunch of money on testing.”

Gladstone says radon testing of a particular area of the home can cost between $150 and $300. And while he predicts that a number of people will call their inspectors to get such a test, “Probably there are not going to be a lot of high levels,” he says.

But if a test reveals particularly high levels of radiation, Gladstone says the unlucky homeowner may have to bite the bullet.

“I don’t know of any way to fix it,” he says. “You’re talking about a radioactive piece of rock in the middle of your house. The best way to fix it is to get rid of it.”

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