Granite kitchen countertops

by Walter Olson on July 25, 2008

Apparently a few of the ones with exotic striations have enough radioactive mineral content that you might have to worry if you spent many of your waking hours strapped to them as to a hospital gurney. (Staying even a few inches away should be enough to lower the risk to pretty much zero, which is fortunate given that the posture most of us use while chopping celery does not involved prolonged whole-body contact.) Nonetheless, per a New York Times account yesterday that does little to discourage reader alarmism, “Personal injury lawyers are already advertising on the Web for clients who think they may have been injured by countertops.” (Kate Murphy, “What’s Lurking In Your Countertop?”, Jul. 24).

Let me be the first to predict that if such litigation has any future, it will not be in recovering large sums for the unprovable (because almost certainly nonexistent) toxic effects, but in $20,000 claims against insurers and contractors for rip-out and replacement*, which, in the usual circular fashion, will be stimulated by alarmist accounts like the one in the Times. And the predominant injury risk from a chunk of hewn granite will continue to be, as it has always been, being in the way when it drops.

*I’m not sure why people choose a countertop material that will dull their knives and chip their china, to say nothing of being cold and ungrateful to the touch. But that’s another topic.

P.S. The EPA has a statement (scroll).

{ 20 comments }

1 Deoxy 07.25.08 at 2:11 pm

*because it LOOKS nice and expensive; also (from what I’ve seen), it takes abuse pretty well (the damage tends to be to the knives and china instead of to itself).

2 Walter Olson 07.25.08 at 2:23 pm

I don’t know, my definition of “takes abuse pretty well” would be more like “behaves gracefully when insulted and looks nice with a little wear”. I understand that while it doesn’t usually crack, if it does you’re up the creek cost-wise, as with repairs to an expensive sports car.

3 BP 07.25.08 at 2:25 pm

My Dave Barry sense is tingling telling me that Exotic Striations would be a great name for a rock band. Or a strip club.

4 Mike 07.25.08 at 3:30 pm

While I agree that this is going to be a source of senseless lawsuits and people will overreact the word “radiation”, I don’t think you should minimize 100 picocuries of radon. If I were getting radon reading that high in my kitchen, I’d rip them out too.

5 John Burgess 07.25.08 at 5:17 pm

If you make candy or pastry, you appreciate the cold-retaining qualities of granite (or marble). The appearance and expense are certainly among the selling points, though.

Personally, I like the old-fashioned soap stone that used to be found from the mid-Atlantic up through New England. It was too easy to damage and stain, but it sure looked purty…

6 Richard Nieporent 07.25.08 at 6:15 pm

Nevertheless, Mr. Witt said, “There is no known safe level of radon or radiation.” Moreover, he said, scientists agree that “any exposure increases your health risk.”

This is just more junk science. There is no proof that low levels of radon gas causes lung cancer. In fact studies show just the opposite effect. A new study of radon exposure reported in the March 26, 2008 edition of Science News concludes that exposure to low levels of radon appears to reduce the risk of lung cancer!

Exposure to levels of radon gas typically found in 90 percent of American homes appears to reduce the risk of developing lung cancer by as much as 60 percent, according to a study published in the March issue of the journal Health Physics.

The results of the current study do not fall within the “linear, no threshold” (LNT) model commonly used to analyze radon’s cancer risk (in fact, the current study calls into question the validity of that model). The model starts with cancer risks documented for exposure to high levels of radon (for example, by uranium miners) and extrapolates a considerable distance to risks at low levels (for example, for homeowners). In that model, the odds ratios of developing cancer rise linearly from one, beginning at a radon level of zero. The model has been used by the EPA to derive its estimate that 21,000 cancer deaths annually can be attributed to radon exposure, and also accounts for the common belief that there is no safe level of radon exposure.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080325122807.htm

Earlier studies from the University of Pittsburgh in the 1990s came to the same conclusion that the Linear nonthreshold model used to measure the risk from radon gas is wrong.

With or without corrections for variations in smoking prevalence, the data clearly shows that there is a strong tendency for lung cancer rates to decrease with increasing radon exposure. The actual radiation/cancer relationship indicating a decline in cancer with an increase in low level radon radiation is in sharp contrast to the reverse relationship which coincides with the prevailing no threshold theory.

http://www.junkscience.com/news/lehr.html

If there were really no safe levels of exposure then we should be suing the EPA for setting a threshold level of 4 picocuries per liter of air. After all they claim that’s equivalent to smoking a half pack of cigarettes a day. How dare they expose us to such a dangerous level of carcinogens.

7 joneil 07.25.08 at 6:44 pm

Certian types of red New Hampshire granite has known to be lightly radioactive since the 1950s, so at least 50 years. Why all the fuss now?

Also, the same grantie has been used accross both the USA and Canada for gravestones since pre-WW One.

I suppose we will have some law firm now figure out a class action suit for harm done to the “living impaired.”
:)

8 LTEC 07.25.08 at 8:28 pm

If a surface doesn’t do harm to your knives, then the knives will do harm to the surface. Just look at any cutting board that you’ve used.

9 Melvin H. 07.25.08 at 10:15 pm

Uh, Mike . . .

One picocurie is equal to ten to the MINUS-12th power curies–written out:

1 Picocurie = 0.000 000 000 001 curie (RE: Wikipedia).

So, 100 picocuries = 0.000 000 000 1 curie.

That’s ten to the MINUS-10th power.

Seems to me you’d have to live longer than Methuselah to get any noticeable dose, much less a dose that would cause harm.

Do you mean an amount much LARGER–say, 12 curies?

10 JB 07.26.08 at 12:27 am

The desktop on my desk is Granite, as I’m sitting here writing this my you-know-whats are inches away from the underside of the granite surface.

It was fun ordering the desktop at Home Depot. The lady could not understand why I didn’t need a cutout for a sink, the order form needed to know the location of the sink.

11 Richard Nieporent 07.26.08 at 10:52 am

David J. Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University in New York, said the cancer risk from granite countertops, even those emitting radiation above background levels, is “on the order of one in a million.” Being struck by lightning is more likely.

When I read the above from the NY Times article I thought finally someone has made a rational comment. Unfortunately it was immediately followed by:

Nonetheless, Dr. Brenner said, “It makes sense. If you can choose another counter that doesn’t elevate your risk, however slightly, why wouldn’t you?”

Because if you are a rational individual who understands statistics/risk factors you ignore low probability events. Does Dr. Brenner avoid driving to the store until it is absolutely necessary because he slightly elevates his risk of being hurt/dying by driving? Does he avoid taking baths/showers, going swimming, using power tools, mowing his lawn, etc. because there are small risk factors associated with those activities? What is so disheartening is that David Brenner has a Ph.D. in physics and therefore he must know that his last comment is not a rational response.

12 Ralph 07.26.08 at 11:01 am

Regading pico-curies – this is the correct term. If you were to stand 1 meter away from a 12 curie source for 2 days, you would receive close to a fatal dose of radiation. The curie is a historical unit of measurement that has been supplemented by a more modern one with units that are simpler. Younger health physicists are taught to use the bequerel. 1 curie=3.7×10^10 disintegrations/second, while 1 bequerel= 1 disintegration/second. The unit of dose have also changed from roentgens/rads/rem to sieverys and grays, for the same reason. Most people don’t have any real comprenension about radiation doses or their sources.

If you really think that there is no safe level of radiation, and that there is no good reason to increase your dose, then you need to stop associating with people – stop going to places where there are crowds, stop sleeping with your spouse, stop hugging your children. Everyone irradiates everyone else, due to the naturally-occuring radioactive material within our bodies, and when you are standing next to someone, you receive part of the dose that they are emmiting. Stand closer and the dose goes up.

13 L Nettles 07.26.08 at 11:19 am

I am reminded of this story.

Holy Isotopes! Radiation Levels at Capitol 65 Times EPA Standards for Facility

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,21015,00.html

14 Mike 07.26.08 at 9:35 pm

“So, 100 picocuries = 0.000 000 000 1 curie.”

100 picocuries per liter is a lot. A curie is a gigantic amount of radiation, which is why it’s not used as often as a measurement.

15 Nudger 07.27.08 at 10:27 am

There are dozens of things in your kitchen that are millions of times more likely to kill you than your countertops. The most likely way to die is simply falling down. Accidentally drinking the cleaning stuff underneath the sink is up there, as is eating something from the fridge that’s gone bad.

To put it in perspective, drinking from BPA-coated bottles while sitting on your granite countertops for a few thousand years increases your risk of death about as much as eating just one raw oyster.

But hey, it’s good that the lawyers are on this one. They can help us sue the manufacturers, so we can all can take our winnings and go back to the familiar safety of our freeways, workplaces and extreme-sport vacations.

16 Granitefabber 07.27.08 at 6:33 pm

Several things that stand out in the comments. First is the distance the radiation can travel. We have run tests in our own shop with a 220 uR/hr source (Niagara Gold, the parent slab of that chunck in both the NY Times and the CBS Morning show.

At four inches, celery chopping length (!), 2,280 counts per minute (each count is a burst of radiation hitting the meter) That meter is buzzing pretty good.

At 12″ 840 cpm 14 times background radiation
At 24″ 600 cpm 10 times
At 36″ 480 cpm 8 times
At 60″ 180 cpm 3 times

Even at six feet, the radiation is still high, double background. That is hardly non existent radiation.

We don’t yet know the energy level of the radiation from that slab, the scientist is going to publish, so we aren’t allowed to know, but once that is known, we can take the reach of this radiation, the energy levels of a known sample, and calculate a “reach” for other granites. Or at least a rule of thumb.

So low level granites, yeah, no problem there except for the small increase from doubling background.

NLT is accepted by the ICRP, as is ALARA. True there is a fringe that believes that some radiation is good for you, but the BEIR VII researched it and specifically rejected it. No Linear Threshold remains the world wide accept rule.

True, a pCi is a small amount, but the EPA says Radon at 4 pCi/L is the same as smoking a half pack of cigarettes. The 100 pCi/L quoted in that report would be like smoking 12.5 packs of cigarettes a day.

The EPA level of 4 pCi/L was set by calculating a cost of avoidance per death. I’ll probably mangle the numbers, but it will be close, they said it was like $2,000,000 avoided cost for each life saved at 4 pCi/L. Were they to set it lower, say 2 pCi/L, it would cost closer to $5,000,000 per avoided death.

“What is so disheartening is that David Brenner has a Ph.D. in physics and therefore he must know that his last comment is not a rational response.”
Either that, or he knows exactly what he is talking about. I would suggest the latter.

All the radioactive people, bananas, and brazil nut examples are just straw man arguments. The levels are extremely low, one source said he had to reduce a 100# of bananas to ash to get a very low reading on his meter.

I’ll tell ya, I furnished those samples, they came from scrap from my competitors dumpsters or I bought remnants from them. They are too hot to put in a home, but they were.

17 Bill Alexander 07.27.08 at 7:29 pm

Dosage involves not only rate but also time. I haven’t followed up on the EPA number of 4 pCi/L, but I expect that is for 24 hour exposure, while a person probably gets a 24 hour exposure of their kitchen counter top in 3 or 4 months. I see no great hazard in the risk associated with a half pack of cigarettes every 3 months.

18 Richard Nieporent 07.28.08 at 9:07 am

NLT is accepted by the ICRP, as is ALARA. True there is a fringe that believes that some radiation is good for you, but the BEIR VII researched it and specifically rejected it. No Linear Threshold remains the world wide accept rule.

I thought we were discussing science, Granitefabber. In science you must not ignore a study because it disagrees with the “accepted rule”. I gave you a reference to a peer-reviewed study that has just been published in the journal Health Physics. The article in ScienceDaily states that the study found that “Exposure to levels of radon gas typically found in 90 percent of American homes appears to reduce the risk of developing lung cancer by as much as 60 percent.” But even more significant is the following sentence that says ”The finding differs significantly from the results of previous case-control studies of the effects of low-level radon exposure, which have detected a slightly elevated lung cancer risk (but without statistical significance) or no risk at all.” Thus, it is not just that this study differs from previous studies but the fact that the previous studies do not show a cancer risk! In other words there is no evidence for the Linear Threshold rule. The numbers that the EPA uses are simply made up.

You also dismiss my comment “What is so disheartening is that David Brenner has a Ph.D. in physics and therefore he must know that his last comment is not a rational response.” by stating “Either that, or he knows exactly what he is talking about. I would suggest the latter.”

Did Dr. Brenner also know what he was talking about when he said that “the cancer risk from granite countertops, even those emitting radiation above background levels, is “on the order of one in a million.” Being struck by lightning is more likely.”? Are you trying to tell us that we should ignore his factual statement that the risk level is infinitesimal but accept his non-rational statement that we should avoid a non-significant small elevation of risk? Do you avoid flying Granitefabber because of the small increase of radiation you are exposed to? After all if you can choose another means of transportation that doesn’t elevate your risk, however slightly, why wouldn’t you?

19 rich gibbs 01.15.09 at 1:53 pm

sorry to say but i have been selling granite tops for 20 yrs and yes we make them in our shop and install them. as far as craking after there installed well that has only happend to us once and i have installed more than 2000 tops and it was due to fire damage and the home owners insurance payed for it , as far as knife are concerned ” dulling them” who in the right mind would cut on any top it would leave marks all over it somthing a kid would do, but if you did it on granite all that would happen is you would need to sharpen you knife wow and not replace you non-granite top sure a corrian or postform top cost more than sharpening your knife go figure. and for being cold to the touch it is only common sence the granite is going to be the same tempature as the air in your home….

20 Granite fabber 04.06.09 at 9:13 pm

“for being cold to the touch it is only common sence the granite is going to be the same tempature as the air in your home….”

Sad to say, this statement shows how ridiculous the average stone fabricator will be with his comments in defending the problem issues of granite. Any fool can touch a granite countertop and realize how it sucks the body heat from your hand quickly, far in excess than regular materials. Simply splitting hairs in a crude attempt to decieve, not even able to concede a easily proven fact. Welcome to my industry….

Bill Alexander,
the EPA’s 4pCi/L is for a daily dose, so that half a pack of smokes is per day, not three months.

Richard Nieporent,

No matter how much you squawk, ALARA remains the law of the land for radiation protection and you are educated enough to know this. You are also well aware that a handful of studies do not challenge BEIR VII in any form or fashion. You are also aware that those studies you refer to are ecological studies where large populations are studied without looking into individual cases and are flawed methods of studying radon risks. The only honest method is to follow the cases one by one to determine the true health risks of Radon. All epidemiologists know this, only those who are attempting to protect their industry will stoop to using false science.

Dude, radiation isn’t chocolate.

And bottom line on Dr. Brenner’s interview is that he clearly stated that avoiding the risk is the intelligent decision. Duh….

Some of the science is being wrapped up on this issue. Dr. Kitto has his first paper out on Radon and granite in April’s issue of Health Physics Journal. He is easing into the topic, simply talking about his measurement techniques, allowing the Health Phycisists to become comfortable with his methods. Kitto did show some granite countertop data with as much as 1,000 times varience from lowest to highest, but his hottest samples aren’t included in this paper. Most researchers will get five or six papers out of a single set of data, publish or perish as they say.

I’ll tell you though, this radon and radiation issue is serious, but it will pale in comparison to the heavy metal issues with granite that are showing up. One researcher in Californina found a granite countertop that had 10,260ppm of Thallium (also radioactive, but far, far, more toxic than it is a radiation hazard).

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