Granite countertops: NOT silent killers

by Cassandra Willyard
Thursday, January 5, 2012

Nothing says class like a thick slab of polished granite. The stone is so durable. So chic. So modern. So...radioactive?

On Sept. 2, NBC's Today Show cautioned homeowners - especially pregnant women or families with small children - to think twice before installing granite countertops. Granite emits not only radiation, but also radioactive radon gas, explained Today Show correspondent Natalie Morales.

The article wasn't the igneous rock's only bad press this year. In July, the New York Times ran an article called "What's lurking in your countertop?" about radon.

The media scrutiny sparked panic among consumers. After all, radiation has the potential to cause cancer and birth defects. And radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers.

But can a granite countertop emit enough radiation to pose a health risk? Not really, says Mike Brennan, a radiation health physicist with the Washington State Department of Health in Olympia. Brennan says even a Geiger counter can't detect radiation from a slab of granite from more than a few inches away.

"So in terms of direct radiation, you would have to spend a long time, at least hours per day, laying on the granite countertop, in order to receive very much exposure from it," Brennan says.

A granite countertop isn't likely to pose much of a radon threat either, he adds. "What we encourage people to do is to test their home for radon. The test kits are readily available and they're easy to use. And if you test your home for radon and you don't have a radon problem, you can be pretty certain that you don't have a problem in connection with your granite countertop."

Andrew Karam, a radiation safety expert based in Rochester, N.Y., agrees with Brennan. Karam says he certainly wouldn't advise people who have pricey granite countertops to tear them out. But he does have some advice for people considering such extreme measures.

"If anybody is thinking about doing that, I would advise them to give me a call, because my wife and I are looking to redo our kitchen," Karam says.

For more on this story, see the November issue of EARTH.

And for more information on potential health threats from granite countertops:

Radiation experts at the Health Physics Society in McLean, Va., wrote a Letter to the Editor in response to the New York Times article.
In July, the EPA released an official statement on radiation emitted by granite countertops.

And - visit the NOVA Geoblog for another take on this issue by EARTH contributing cartoonist, Callan Bentley.

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