A Rational Discussion on Radon in Granite Countertops

This post is a follow-up to The Fight Over Radon in Granite Countertops Heats Up, which will provide some background information on the granite/radon issue.

With the legion of both deniers and alarmists out there attempting to monopolize the discussion over the safety of granite countertops, it is difficult to find unbiased information.  Peruse the comments in the above post and you can see the discussion has devolved into name calling.  The deniers, many of whom work in the granite industry, blast any insinuation that granite could be dangerous as “fear-mongering” and put down the current research as “junk science.”  The alarmists, many of whom sell competing countertops, argue that consumers shouldn’t take the risk that comes with granite.  The truth, as with most heated arguments, can be found somewhere in the middle.

First, let me say that the vast majority of granite countertops are perfectly safe.  Very rarely, a granite countertop may emit radon gas or gamma radiation beyond a healthy level.  Before anyone claims that by making such a statement I am now in the “alarmist” category, look at the study that the Marble Institute of America links to showing most granite countertops are safe:  2008 Radon Study Released.  Dr. Chyi found that while most granite emitted little to no radon or radiation, one color emitted radon slightly higher than a healthy level and another color emitted radon 7% beyond the healthy level.  Add the EPA’s claim that “Some granite may emit gamma radiation above typical background levels,” and I think we can throw out the claim that there is zero potential for dangerous levels of radon or radiation in granite countertops.

Pay attention to the language used when discounting the potential dangers of granite.  From the Texas Department of State Health Services:  “The amount of radioactivity in most granite is quite small.”  From the EPA:  “Based on existing studies, most types of granite used in countertops and other aspects of home construction are not typically known to be major contributors of radiation and radon in the average home.”  While certainly reassuring to those worried about their own granite countertops, the qualifier “most” in both statement allows for the reality that in very rare instances radioactivity levels in granite countertops are beyond safe levels.

Some have argued that any radon a granite countertop releases would be mitigated by a home’s ventilation system.  While this can be true on a house by house basis, both the EPA and the Surgeon General recommend limiting a family’s exposure to radon whenever possible.  And an efficient ventilation system does not address the problem of direct gamma radiation from granite countertops, an issue that Dr. William Llope, a physicist from Rice University, is continuing to research.  Similar to the findings of Dr. Chyi, Dr. Llope has found that while most granite emitted little to no radiation, a small number of the samples he tested emitted unhealthy levels of radiation.  He is compiling his results for peer review.

The question is no longer whether granite can contain radon or radiation, but how are consumers going to be reassured that the granite they are buying is radon free.  The Marble Institute of America is beginning to move away from denial and toward reassurance of the public, a move many in the middle of the argument applaud.  Their website directs current granite owners toward radon testing kits and they have recently announced the formation of a panel to develop a protocol for testing granite for radon and radiation.  Check back here for updates on this panel and new testing protocols.

Update:  I spoke with Jim Martinez from the Marble Institute of America, who told me that the MIA is working together with the Environmental Health & Engineering consulting firm to study the issue of radon in granite countertops.  The most active stones they have found are 70 times below the safe level.  “Based on our analysis, we’ve not found a single stone that’s a problem,” said Mr. Martinez.  The scientific panel being put together will address the issue that there is currently no scientific standard for measuring radon in granite, and it is Mr. Martinez’s hope that the panel will not only develop a measurement standard but also a standard for interpreting the data.

I welcome comments from all sides of this issue, but please try to keep the discussion on a rational level.  In this political season, I think we’ve all had enough of spin and name calling.

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