July 29, 2008 -- 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."
EPA, Inspectors Short on Answers
But for many homeowners who may now find themselves avoiding their kitchen islands, the $10,000 question remains: Is it worth the worry?
"There are people, I'm sure, who have invested between $6,000 and $10,000 on a piece of natural stone to go on their kitchen counters," Gladstone says. "You can imagine someone spending $10,000 on something and then having to throw it away."
The EPA has been fielding this question on its Web site over the past several days. And for now, the scientists there note that in most cases, health risks are probably minimal to nonexistent.
"While natural minerals such as granite may occasionally emit radon gas, the levels of radon attributable to such sources are not typically high," the EPA noted on its Web site in response to a question about granite countertop safety.
But, the response continued, "there are simply too many variables to generalize about the potential health risks inside a particular home that has granite countertops. ... It is possible for any granite sample to contain varying concentrations of uranium that can produce radon gas.
"EPA has no reliable data to conclude that types of granite used in countertops are significantly increasing indoor radon levels."
But while the EPA's data on granite countertops remain inconclusive, Kocher says there are a number of sources of radiation in and around our everyday environments -- which means over the course of any given day, we are exposed to a measurable dose of radiation.
These sources include certain types of building materials other than granite, such as some kinds of ceramic tile, as well as consumer products.
"The most common example that is in most everybody's house is a smoke detector," Kocher says. "The way these work, they have a very small amount of radioactive material in them that ionizes materials when they pass through there.
Certain lanterns used for camping have, in years past, used the radioactive material thorium in some components. Most pre-1970s watches with hands that glow in the dark owe their nighttime luminescence to radium.
"There are lots of consumer products like that that have been marketed over the years," Kocher says.
He characterizes the level of radiation from these devices as "very, very small."
People can also be exposed to radiation from such sources as phosphate-containing fertilizer, cosmic rays from outer space, and x-rays and other medical tests. Flying in an airplane ups exposure. So, too, does living in certain regions of the United States, where background levels of naturally occurring elements in the ground can boost exposure levels.
But despite all of these sources, according to a report issued by the NCPRM in 1987, background radiation is only responsible for about 3 percent of the average American's total radiation exposure from all sources each year, including natural background radiation and medical exposures.
"There are people out there who will worry about almost anything," Kocher says. And despite widespread fears over radiation, he adds, "the truth of the matter is that radiation is not a very potent cause of cancer as far as we know."
Still, he notes, one less source of radiation in the mix is probably a good thing.
"With granite, they have not added the radiation to that to make it better or shinier," he says. "In this case, the radiation just comes along for the ride."
Putting Granite to the Test
Gladstone and his wife were relieved when the radon test on their granite countertop suggested they had little to worry about. Despite this, he says that the best approach for most homeowners may be to wait until more facts come to light.
"A whole bunch of people in the profession and scientists are giving it a strong look right now," he says. "I would tell someone to wait a week before they plunk down a whole bunch of money on testing."
Gladstone says radon testing of a particular area of the home can cost between $150 and $300. And while he predicts that a number of people will call their inspectors to get such a test, "Probably there are not going to be a lot of high levels," he says.
But if a test reveals particularly high levels of radiation, Gladstone says the unlucky homeowner may have to bite the bullet.
"I don't know of any way to fix it," he says. "You're talking about a radioactive piece of rock in the middle of your house. The best way to fix it is to get rid of it."