05 June 2009

Are my counters giving me a headache? Part two: radon and granite

Yesterday, I devoted a lot of space to answering a reader question about something she thought she'd heard about granite counters emitting a gas that gave her a headache and could make people sick.

She didn't know the words, but what she was asking about was Radon coming from granite counters. Yesterday's column defined the terms atom, radiation, radioactivity and radon. Now that I've established those terms, I'm going delve back into the topic and write about how Radon gets into granite counters and whether or not it's dangerous.

Uranium is a common atom in soil and rocks worldwide. Uranium is an unstable atom it sheds its extra parts to become Radon. Radon is a gas and it's also an unstable atom. As Radon sheds its extra parts, it forms four daughters. Inhaling these four daughter atoms in high concentrations and over a long period of time can increase the chances that who ever's breathing them may develop lung cancer.

So as I've been saying all along, Uranium, Radon and Radon's four daughters are all naturally occurring, common things. All life on earth is surrounded by these radioactive atoms and for the most part, they are harmless. It's a good thing they are because it is not possible to remove background radiation from the environment. Still with me?

Because Uranium is such a commonly-found material in the surface of the earth, anything that comes from the earth will have some traces of Uranium in it and will therefore be radioactive. Where there's Uranium, Radon and her four daughters are sure to follow.

How much Radon is in the environment naturally is dependent a lot of factors, the first being your location. Some bedrock has more Uranium and therefore Radon, than others. I found this map on the US Environmental Protection Agency's websites that shows the Radon distribution in the US. I know a lot of you who read this don't live in the US. I could not find a similar world map. If you're concerned about the Radon in your area, check with the environment ministry in your country.

In a lot of cases, these Radon hot zones also happen to be parts of the country with granite bedrock, but not always. Radon is a dense gas and it's heavier than air. It tends to pool in low areas and its presence comes and goes, even in a particularly rich Radon hot spot. Just because it's there, doesn't mean it's a problem. Radon is colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. You cannot see it or sense that it's present. You cannot tell if you're breathing it either. Air movement makes it dissipate and that moving air dilutes it to the point of harmlessness. Radon can only be a problem if it's allowed to pool and in most homes, that can only happen in a basement. If you have Radon pooling in your unventilated basement, the only way to detect it is to have a Radon test performed by a Radon Mitigation Specialist. Radon testing is now mandatory in most parts of the US, and it has to be done every time a house sells. If it turns out that you have high levels of Radon in your home, then you need to have a ventilation system installed that's designed to vent Radon. It is not a big deal but Radon is something you don't want pooling in your basement. It's interesting to note that Radon mitigation systems are designed to dilute Radon, not eliminate it. Eliminating all traces of Radon is impossible. Please remember that.

Exposure to alpha particle radiation (that's the kind of radiation we're talking about) is unavoidable if you breathe air. But radiation exposure, like exposure to anything potentially dangerous, is a question of how much and for how long. Long-term exposure to high concentrations is the problem, not the radiation itself.

Granite comes from bedrock and some granites have Uranium in them. You cannot tell from looking at a slab of granite if it contains Uranium. Some stone yards are offering to send samples from a slab to a laboratory for analysis. If it makes people feel better, then why not? I say that it's unnecessary, but who am I to stop people from wasting their money?

It's not just me and my opinion here either. There is near unanimity in the scientific community when it comes to the safety of granite counters. Two leading authorities on indoor environmental exposures, Dr. John McCarthy, of Environmental Health & Engineering, and Dr. John D. Spengler,of the Harvard School of Public Health, recently concluded: “A considerable amount of research has been published in peer-reviewed scientific literature and all of it comes to the same conclusion: the levels of radon coming off a granite counter are not excessive and not showing any risk for the population in their homes.” Actual, peer-reviewed, real scientific studies show again and again that granite counters pose no risk to consumers. [1]

Now I've seen the YouTube videos of Geiger counters clicking away as they sit on granite counters, but those videos aren't really telling you a whole lot other than that there's radiation present. A Geiger counter can't tell you what kind of radiation it's detecting. When it comes to radiation threats, the kind of radiation means everything and the amount not so much. For kicks, I'd love to see some of these video makers hold a Geiger counter over some other common, radioactive objects. Smoke detectors, bricks, cinder blocks, Sheetrock, well water, spring water, ceramic dishes and other stuff that comes from the earth are also radioactive. Some foods like bananas and Brazil nuts are too. The potassium your body can't function without is radioactive, and so for that matter, are you.

I don't think that granite counters pose any kind of a Radon threat, though I'm sure some of them emit small amounts of Radon. However, there is simply not enough granite in a counter for the counter to cause a Radon problem. The real problem with Radon, if there is a problem, is in the bedrock under your house.

If you're concerned, by all means get some tests done. If there's a problem, by all means get it dealt with. The US EPA has a great website with a page dedicated to Radon testing and mitigation. At the end of the day though, I am confident enough that I will continue to specify granite counters (and bricks, and cinder blocks, and Sheetrock) and I will continue to hang out in stone yards.

Oh! And on a lighter note, there was a time in the not too distant past when Uranium, Radium and Radon were thought to be health foods. Radon was added to water to "fortify" it and Radium was available as a supplement. Most curious of all was that Radium was sold to men as a suppository. This box of Radium suppositories is from 1930.

Here's an excerpt from its accompanying pamphlet:
Weak Discouraged Men!

Now Bubble Over with Joyous Vitality
Through the Use of
Glands and Radium

". . . properly functioning glands make themselves known in a quick, brisk step, mental alertness and the ability to live and love in the fullest sense of the word . . . A man must be in a bad way indeed to sit back and be satisfied without the pleasures that are his birthright! . . . Try them and see what good results you get!"
Those suppositories are from a website called Radioactive Quack Cures. It's a riot and it ought to help put a new perspective on the Kenoki Foot Pads and Reiki Therapy quack cures of today.

[1] Independent research studies include those cited above, as well as:
• Al-Jarallah MI, et al. 2005. Correlation between radon exhalation and radium content in granite samples used as construction materials in Saudi Arabia. Radiation Measurements, 40, 625-629.
• NCRP Report No. 95. 1987. Radiation exposure of the U.S. population from consumer products and miscellaneous sources. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. Bethesda, MD.


  1. Read both the posts Paul. Very interesting and articulate!

  2. Thanks Brenda, you win the endurance award! I know that they were pretty long posts and I applaud you for sticking it out. I think it's pretty important information and I hope that people get something from them. I learned a ton putting them together I know that much.

  3. Thank you for the award Paul. I am deeply honoured.
    Have a great weekend!

  4. You are most welcome Brenda. I appreciate your spending time around here. Have a great weekend too!

  5. You obviously put a lot of time, thought, and research into these two Radon posts. It's great that you explained everything so clearly and thoroughly -- thanks!!

    I think when people hear the word "radiation", they automatically think "cancer". And to be honest, I had no idea that harmless radiation is happening all around us all the time.

    Tomorrow we're going to check out a couple more slabs of granite :-) We ain't afraid of no Radon!! ;-)


  6. Glad to hear it Kelly! I learned a lot in writing that too. Radiation's a pretty generic term and it describes both harmless and dangerous kinds of radiation. It's a wildly interesting subject, but then again I'm a geek when it comes to this kind of stuff.

  7. Wow, a kitchen designer who knows his products from the atom up. You set the bar very high!

    I think radon is mostly a media created boogeyman, like killer bees from Africa.

    Better to make sure a pro installs your gas lines, then get a good nights sleep!

    Thanks for the clear, comprehensive explanation.

  8. Thanks Leona! And yes, there's an enormous amount of hype surrounding Radon. I find this particularly enraging because the hype discourages an accurate appraisal of what can be a real problem in some cases. Radon can be dangerous, but it is only rarely dangerous. I specifically sought out the help of a physicist with this series of posts because the real, calmly delivered, accurate information on this and so many other hyped problems can only come from the people who study it for a living. Share the love, hug a scientist today!

  9. Wow interesting stuff!!! Around 1990 the Canadian real estate industry was all on edge about radon gas. I think the unit measurement was "beckerals"(sp?) US acceptable levels were around 300 units and the Canadian level was something like 850.

    Radon inspectors tried hard to storm the home buyer's market. I think they migrated south to the US as I understand radon is still an issue for home buyers with fairly strict disclosure requirements in some states. Radon testing is a HUGE industry!

    While I was waiting in my accountant's office yesterday, I read a joke/pun in the Reader's Digest about granite counters and geiger counters. Being a word nerd I thought it was hysterical. Never in a million years would I have guessed that people were truly fussing about radon gas in their granite counters.

    Well Paul... once again you have shed a bright light in a very dark corner of my world. When you come to Canada to redo my kitchen I think we should just nix the counters and add more vending machines.:)

    PS... I am so impressed with your BFF scientist too!!

  10. Oh ya... and I wanted to ask you where on earth would you have come to know about those radon suppositories hmmm????

  11. Thanks Christine, I'm glad you made the whole way through these radon/ radiation posts. I'm wildly proud of them and I fear that not enough people actually read them for them to do a whole lot of good. Radiation is a hot button word. A lot of people hear the word and then panic before they can learn anything about what it is. It's frustrating.

    The term you're thinking of is picocuries. Picocuries are one of the ways used to indicate a level of radiation present in a given environment.

    You bet radon testing is a big industry. There's a lot of money to be made from ignorance and a lack of understanding. People spend more money when they're afraid.

    The suppository thing came about as I was researching for this piece. Radon and radioactive elements are relatively new discoveries and back when scientists were figuring out that they exist, hucksters touted them as an elixir and cure all. Sort of the way hucksters tout anti-oxidants, herbal supplements and organic everything now.

    I feel like I'm tilting against windmills when I write things like this and I am happy to hear that you found this to be useful.

  12. Found it... becquerels (radon disintegrations per second) per cubic metre (Bq/m3) Terminology must be like the imperial / metric thing. An analysis of data from 13 European case-control studies produced an article saying residential radon is not a significant lung cancer issue for non-smokers but is for smokers. Dah.. go figure huh? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15613366

  13. Brava! Thanks for the heads up and the correction. You're a woman after my own heart. I can't rest until I know and understand something either. I don't doubt that excessive exposure to radon is a bad thing, the problem comes from setting the bar so low that it's unachievable. Life has risks and it's impossible to eliminate them.

    That study does a great job of pointing out that it's nearly impossible to determine a cause and effect for cancer. Cancer's a process that needs a bunch of things in order to happen. "Radon exposure caused my lung cancer" is a really flawed way to phrase the very real problem of environmentally acquired lung cancer.

    The lack of rigor in in the popular press when it comes to science reporting drives me nuts and when it's led by personal injury attorneys and not actual scientists, we end up with zero tolerances for radon, an impossible and wasteful goal.

  14. LOL... I'm glad to know another "high information type". Some days it is such a curse.. brain will not move forward until last bit of info dissected, processed and filed.

    BTW my last home had granite countertops and I just loved them. I wish I had paid the upgrade to get them again for this kitchen. Argggh!

  15. thanks paul, great article. as someone who is very concerned about ecological sustainability i hope you dont put 'organic' in the huckster category. for what it's worth i am a skeptic and have also had good experiences with reiki (i am truly a skeptic, i went to a hypnotist once and she did the whole thing and said 'now your hypnotized, and you will da da da' and i was like no, i'm not...). we have electricity, it is why heart zappers bring us out of heart attacks etc and 'back to life', reiki is just a way of working with the body's natural energy. i dont think all practitioners are actually any good/doing anything, i think there are fakes and just misguided people in any industry, but that doesnt invalidate the whole movement. did you know double blind, peer reviewed studies showed that people who were Prayed for remotely, by strangers, got healthier than those who were not? weird. i would not have guessed that outcome. so it's a complicated world. but keep up the good work on educating people about granite. i would a million times over have a natural stone from the earth in my home, than a ton o' nasty unsustainable plastic. solid surface is one of my least favorite counter materials of all kinds.


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