Cause for Worry? Granite Fears Grip Homeowners

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."

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