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Granite Countertops a Recipe for Danger?

Debate Heats Up About Radon Risks
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 30, 2008 -- They are beautiful and durable, but do those pricey granite kitchen countertops so popular with home builders and renovators also pose a health risk?

Some researchers say they might, but a group representing the granite industry counters that those claims are “alarmist” and that their studies are little more than “junk science.”

At issue is whether some granite countertops emit dangerous levels of radiation, especially the gas radon, which is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.

Experts agree that most granite countertops emit some radon and even other types of radiation. The question is whether they do so at levels that can impact cancer risk.

New York State Health Department research scientist Michael Kitto, PhD, says only a small fraction of the granite samples he has tested have emitted radon at levels that were over those considered safe.

But he added that a few of his samples showed levels that were high enough to alarm him.

“I wouldn’t have them in my house,” Kitto tells WebMD.

Countertop Concerns Not New

Concerns about the safety of granite kitchen countertops are not new.

“The countertop story emerges every 10 years or so,” Columbia University Center for Radiological Research Director David J. Brenner, PhD, tells WebMD. “This is about the third time I remember it coming around.”

The concerns were fueled by a New York Times story last Thursday examining the issue.

The story mentioned the research of Rice University physics professor William Llope, PhD, which found potentially dangerous levels of radiation in some tested samples of granite used in countertops.

In response to the Times article, the Marble Institute of America (MIA) issued a statement on its web site asserting that the Environmental Protection Agency agreed with the industry claim that studies like Llope’s represented “junk science.”

Under the headline “EPA Confirms that Granite Countertops Pose No Significant Health Risk, Undercutting ‘Junk Science’ Fear Mongering,” the article claims that the EPA issued a statement on Friday saying as much.

While confirming that a Q&A on the EPA web site addressing the radon and countertop issue was changed late last week, EPA spokesman Dave Ryan refused to discuss the institute's claim in an interview with WebMD.

“I will not comment on anything that they are saying,” he said. “All I will say is that our position is on the web site.”

That position, as of early this week, was much more nuanced than the institute claims, noting that “some granite used for countertops may contribute variably to indoor radon levels.”

“At this time, however, EPA does not believe sufficient data exist to conclude that the types of granite commonly used in countertops are significantly increasing indoor radon levels,” the statement reads.

In response to the question, “Are the levels of radon in granite dangerous to humans or animals?” the EPA states, “While radon levels attributable to granite are not typically high, there are simply too many variables to generalize about the potential health risks inside a particular home that has granite countertops.”

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