Is Granite Cancerous?  On Granite Countertops and the Latest Radon Scare

From on August 28, 2008 in CalFinder News

radon granite cancerousJust about a month ago, the New York Times published an article titled, “What’s Lurking in Your Countertops?” Since then there has been a flurry of news reports, weblog rants, and rebuttals with links to this study and that finding. All the while radon testers and competing countertop manufacturers bask in the glory of yet another fear-based run of business. But is any of it true? Are granite-owners right to be scared? For me, research was initially confusing as I read through ridiculous potshots among consumers and contractors. Yet, once I’d found the right track, it was just a few clicks (including a study of the NYT article itself) and most fears were assuaged and rationality again began to win the day.

To sum it up, the Times article and subsequent news stories dealt with a handful of consumers who found unusually high levels of radon in their countertops (radon is emitted via the slow decay of uranium found in granite products, not to mention the ground outside your front door). Yet it seems that, even at relatively high levels, radiation content in 99% of granite countertops is moot. Recently, the Marble Institute of America (MIA) conducted a study of the 13 most-used granite countertops on the market. Each type of granite, which combined make up 80% of the market, was tested regularly over four months for radon emissions. In all cases the granite was found to be plenty safe for use. Apparently, it would take years of constant contact with the countertop to have any significant impact.

Even the Times article points to this. David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University, is quoted as saying the chances of contracting cancer from granite countertops is “one in a million” and around the same odds as being struck by lightning. Nevertheless, many media outlets and organizations have taken further advantage of the scare. The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) has used recent incidents to encourage customers to choose NKBA-certified contractors who, apparently, are educated in the radon/granite relationship. Yet, even some NKBA members are conflicting such implications.

But does that mean I should just disregard any threat as I search for granite countertops? Not necessarily. Even if the chances are one in a million many consumers will want to choose a different material to avoid any elevation of risk; and there is nothing wrong with that. As with anything else regarding your home, the choice is up to you. There is zero harm in having your countertops tested. Furthermore, it is also apparent that radon levels will vary, at least slightly, between different types of granite. You can either pay for them to be tested or do it yourself (see the EPA website).

Granite is the most popular countertop for various reasons, but if you find it or fear it to be harmful, then don’t use it. There are plenty of other options available. If there is anything I fear, it is the combination of the many products, such as paint, flooring and carpets, which have chemicals, VOCs and other harmful substances. There is something to be said for reducing the level of toxins in the air you breathe at home and abroad. Try, just for starters, using a cutting board on your countertop and keeping a good amount of houseplants around to filter the air.