Granite countertops are red-hot and not just because of their soaring popularity and high resale value. It turns out that some granite quarried for furnishings brings with it relatively high levels of uranium, which is not only radioactive but releases radon gas as it decays.
As the New York Times reports, sales of granite countertops have exploded tenfold in the last decade, as has the number of different styles now available. At the same time, a debate has been simmering about how safe the attractive surfaces actually are.
There have been a number of reports of people observing above-background levels of radiation coming from their kitchens, and the EPA has received a growing number of complaints, according to the Times. Officials have noted that some exotic and striated granite varieties from Brazil and Namibia, in particular, have been most suspect.
The Marble Institute of America calls any worries about radiation from granite countertops "ludicrous," saying that any possible levels are insignificant compared with background radiation from space and the Earth's crust, or even X-rays and smoke detectors. Yet one person told the paper her house had radon levels of 100 picocuries per liter of air because of her granite countertops, when the EPA recommends action if radon levels exceed 4 picocuries per liter.
Typically, people receive 360 millirem of radiation from background levels a year, while a "hot" granite countertop might add just a fraction of a millirem per hour, and that's if you are very close to it.
Still, the precautionary principle suggests considering other, and often less pricey, alternatives. What the industry fails to point out is that most public experts agree there is no safe level of radiation all radiation has the potential to damage cells, and cumulative, lifetime exposure is often cited as a major cause of many cancers, as well as potentially aging itself. (So even though the fraction contributed by countertops is likely very small, it may be worth thinking about.)
Karl Z. Morgan, often called the founder of the field of health physics, is famous for arguing that exposing DNA to any ionizing radiation is like letting a "madman loose in a library." According to the EPA, living in a home with 4 picocuries per liter of radon in the air carries about the same cancer risk as smoking a half a pack of cigarettes per day. While most granite countertops are not likely to emit that much, it should give all those parents who tell their children not to smoke a little something to think about.
A big point that this recent New York Times article failed to mention is that granite quarrying, processing and shipment also carries a sizable environmental footprint. Not only is the (obviously) nonrenewable resource mined in destructive open pits, which can then leach toxins into surface waters, but what is heavier than rocks to ship around the planet? Granite is surprisingly easy to break, so a lot can get wasted. Even when you get your countertop in place, it may require frequent chemical treatments.
For many reasons, it does make sense to be different and forget granite. Check out our pages of gorgeous and green alternative countertops, from recycled glass, concrete and even paper; to renewable bamboo; and repurposed materials. Not only can you get a great look, but you'll have a nice conversation piece, and something unique, to share with family and guests.
If you do have granite in your home and are thinking about getting it tested for possible radiation, check with the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists.
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