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Radon In Granite Countertops

What It's About and What You Can Do

The question about the presence of radon in granite countertops is not necessarily new. But in recent times the issue has received more exposure, due in part to media attention and the growth in granite's popularity as a countertop choice.

This article is intended to provide you with information about the issue of radon in granite. It also presents background information behind the attention it's received and offers resources that may provide some help should you have additional questions.

The Background - What The 'Granite Countertops Radon' Issue is About

On July 24, 2008, the New York Times published an article1 titled "What's Lurking in Your Countertop?" that discussed the possibility of granite emitting radon gas into your home. According to the EPA's definition, radon is a cancer-causing radioactive gas.

The NY Times article included a story about a New Jersey resident who's New York summer home was found to emit high levels of radon traced to the granite countertops. The article went on to discuss the implications of the growing popularity of granite countertops and the possibility of their contribution toward household radon emissions.

The relationship between granite countertops and radon is not new but the recent press fostered an understandable concern from the public and a flurry of additional press.

Despite the heightened attention however radon in granite is not completely out of the realm of possibility, nor is it something the press dreamed up. Granite is a natural product that can contain radioactive elements normally occurring in the earth. The real questions are to what extent granite countertops and radon gas exposure are linked and what you can or should do about it if you already have granite countertops or are thinking about installing them.

The Plot Thickens

In addition to the NY Times article, the publication of a not-for-profit website called BuildClean.org2 and it's assertions of potential radon hazards from granite have fueled additional debate (see the update below). According to their website, BuildClean.org's mission is to educate consumers and the building industry about safe and healthy building materials.

Such claims were seen by the Marble Institute of America (MIA)3 as an unsubstantiated assault on their industry. The MIA is the trade organization representing the stone industry.

The Marble Institute contends that BuildClean.org obtains its financial backing from competitors to the stone industry, namely the producers of quartz-based engineered countertops.

In an August 8, 2008 letter4, BuildClean.org president Sara Speer Selber wrote that BuildClean.org received seed funding from C&C North America, producer of Silestone products, as well as Cambria. Both companies produce quartz-based products that are alternatives to natural stone countertops. However she indicated that neither company has attempted to establish any agenda "other than to promote research and knowledge."

Obviously sorting out the facts gets a little more difficult when competing factions are involved. However the upside of all of this may be that the issue will finally gain sufficient momentum to spur objective sources to study this further and develop a sound rational approach to dealing with it.

Clearing The Air (Sort Of)

The fact of the matter is, there are no definitive conclusions on whether or not granite countertops, as a singular category, pose a health threat from radon. This is because there's been no independent, comprehensive study performed.

Some granite samples and countertops have been tested and some have shown elevated levels of radon emissions. However tests on other types of granite have been negative for radon.

For some objective information on the subject, check the latest recommendations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST).

The EPA's information on the general topic of radon, it's risks and how you can address them can be found at their website listed in the resources section below. The information there provides links for testing your home as well as other links to related subject matter. There's also a link to learn more about the granite radon issue.

The AARST is a non-profit professional organization comprising members specializing in radon measurement and mitigation. In a statement released on August 4, 2008 the AARST communicated their stance on radon in granite. The statement discusses appropriate testing methods and offers means through which consumers can address radon concerns. You can link to their website and their position statement via the resources section below.


What You Can Do

Until there's a scientific and verifiable means to determine the risks, if any, that are posed by granite countertops you have several options for getting some help with your questions, regardless of whether you already have granite countertops or are considering installing them.

If you already have granite countertops you can have them tested to determine their contribution to any radon present in your home. You should also have your entire home tested to determine your overall exposure as well as to get a more complete picture of what contribution, if any, your granite countertops provide.

The AARST Position Statement on Granite Countertops and Radon Gas in the resources section below provides information on the steps you can take to get appropriate testing. The AARST home page link below also has a link to find radon inspectors in your local area. You can also contact your local state department of health for more information or click on the EPA's "where you live" link in the resources section below.

If you're considering installing new granite countertops you can check with your local supplier on whether they can test a particular slab you're interested in for radon emissions. If they are able to do this, just make sure you're OK with their testing methods and results. Remember, their motivation is to sell you the granite.


Publisher's Comments

Updated November 2011 (see below)

As the "green" movement continues to grow within the home design and home improvement industries it wouldn't surprise me to see more questions arise about products we use in our homes. We learn new things. Years ago we painted the walls and didn't give a second thought to indoor air quality and those fumes we breathed for several weeks thereafter. Now, there's no shortage of choices for environmentally-friendly paints.

Despite the undercurrent of finger-pointing by competing product makers the issue of radon in granite is real and we now know about it. But that doesn't mean that all granite is "bad" as some initial testing has shown a few varieties to be problematic whereas others are not. To what extent it's a problem still remains to be seen and that's the gray area.

I foresee the possibility of some form of "certification" for granite and possibly other types of stone that's used in indoor environments. It's no different than carpets that receive Greenguard certification for low VOC (volatile organic compounds) emissions. If it comes to that with granite, any certification needs to be achieved through valid and repeatable testing methods, developed by sources independent of the product makers, with the credentials and experience to develop such methods.

In the meantime you're best served by doing due diligence on this subject, as you are with any product choice for your home, while keeping a balanced view of the information that's available.

Update - November 2011

Since I first published this information back in 2008 the controversy over radon in granite countertops has diminished, corroborating the Marble Institute's claims that it wasn't the first time they've been down this road and probably won't be the last.

BuildClean.org no longer exists, or at least I can find no information as to it's continued existence or what happened to the organization. The link to BuildClean.org's August 8, 2008 Letter from the President about this subject which I mentioned above is also no longer available.

As I indicated in my initial comments above, I was hopeful, and still am, that some form of certification is eventually developed to provide homeowners peace of mind relative to the safety of a piece of granite they intend to buy. However as of this date and writing, no such certification program exists.

Also, in full disclosure, since this article was written I installed granite countertops in my own home as part of our family's kitchen/addition remodel. Here's why:
Based on all the evidence that I've seen there isn't a preponderance of data to support the fact that granite, in the form of a countertop or other type of building material, is detrimental to my or my family's health. I chose a very common piece of granite and not one of those cited by some of the research to be a bit "hotter" than others.

Perhaps ignorance is bliss but given the fact that there's been no additional evidence brought to light about past or present health problems associated with granite countertops, I feel that our choice was reasonable. We made an informed decision after having looked at the information available.

My hope is that this article and these comments help you gain some clarity on the matter in the event you've come across this "radon in granite" issue.

My one final note is that our granite countertops have been serving us well and they rate highly in my book as far as a good and durable work surface. That's not an endorsement of the Marble Institute's position - just a homeowner with some real-world experience with the product.


Resources



References

  1. NY Times, July 24, 2008, "What's Lurking In Your Countertop?"
  2. BuildClean.org - www.buildclean.org (no longer available)
  3. Marble Institute of America - www.marble-institute.com
  4. BuildClean.org - August 8, 2008 Letter from the President (no longer available)



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