04 June 2009

Reader question: Are my counters giving me a headache?

Help! A couple days ago on our local news channel, they was talking about granite counters put off a dangerous gas. Studies showed people was having headaches and a few other symptoms. I forgot the gases that it puts out. I missed most of this, but I get headaches all the time since we moved into our new house. We have granite counters. Do I have radon and is that what's giving me headaches? I read you every day. Thanks.

Oh Lord, this question makes me crazy because I hear it all the time. It's not so much the question that bothers me, it's the freak out that accompanies any discussion of the word radioactive. Radioactive is a hot-button word because we have an educational system geared to making good consumers rather than good thinkers. The result is a world filled with people ignorant of the science that makes it possible.

To answer your question, no, your granite counters cannot give you headaches. The gas sometimes emitted, in tiny quantities, by some granites is called Radon, and Radon can't give you a headache either. Further, to the best of my knowledge, there have been no studies that showed that people were getting sick from their counters.

This Radon/ radiation story is a mountain made of a molehill by a trade organization last summer. The trade organization behind it represents the fabricators of solid surface counters. Solid surface is a synthetic counter material sold under a variety of brand names like Corian, Hi-Macs, Staron and others. Beware any finding or study publicized by a trade organization or entity with a vested interest in a favorable result.

The best way to dispel this rumor that's rapidly turning into an urban myth is to shine a little light of science and reason onto it. So over the next day or so I'm going to do a quick overview of some basic physics and atomic theory. I promise to keep it simple and easy to follow. Stick around please. It's better to understand something so you can make an informed decision than it is to be afraid of something you don't understand. Don't you think? This is by no means a definitive lesson in physics. To make sure I'm not missing anything or misleading you, I've enlisted the help of Chris Forrest, a brilliant physicist from Manchester in the UK. Chris responded to my call for help on this topic via Twitter the other day and I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. I know enough about this topic to get about half way there. The section about Radon is all Chris and this post wouldn't have been possible without his wise counsel and atomic know-how. Here goes:

All matter is composed of atoms. Atoms are the building blocks of everything in the known universe. Atoms are like little balls of stuff and if you zoomed in on a beach, some water, your dog or your son; eventually you would see that they are all alike in that they are made from atoms.

There's a dense lump in the center of an atom. The lump in the center is composed of two kinds of smaller particles called protons and neutrons. It's that nucleus that contains most of the stuff in the atom. There are other small bits that whizz around that center the way the earth whizzes around the sun. These whizzing bits are called electrons. For the purposes of a discussion about radiation and radioactivity, we're only going to talk about the component parts of that nucleus, the protons and neutrons.

Different atoms have different numbers of protons in their nuclei, and these differing numbers of protons determine what substance they are. These substances are known as elements. Every element has its own special combination of a certain number of protons and neutrons. Iron, gold, oxygen, copper and uranium are examples of elements. The particles that make up an atom are held together with something called atomic force. Atoms, and therefore elements, are extremely tough and the bonds of atomic force are so strong that chemical reactions can't pull them apart or change what's in them. However, there is a process that can meddle in this atomic world.

OK, so know you know what atoms are all about.

Most atoms are stable, and the protons and neutrons in their nuclei are stuck together very tightly.

Some atoms, if they are a bit too fat for their own good, have unstable nuclei. These atoms shed their extra particles in a process of decay called radiation. It's sort of like going on a diet. Just as you shed pounds until you reach a stable weight, an unstable atom's nucleus will shed extra particles until it reaches a state of stability. Since the name of an atom is determined by the number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus, the act of shedding these parts turns the atom into something else. It is the extra parts and energy that are shed during this decay process that are known as radiation. An atom behaving, decaying, in this way is said to be radioactive.

Radiation and radioactivity are a natural, normal part of the way things are. Life on earth evolved in the presence of radiation and radioactivity, and all life on earth evolved ways to deal with it. We're surrounded by a low level of radiation at every moment and it's completely harmless. The occasional, higher doses we get from having an x-ray or flying in an airplane aren't remotely enough to do us any harm. Most radiation falls into this harmless category. There are some stronger forms of radiation that are harmful, but most radiation is not.

So there's a quickie description of what radiation and radioactivity are. See? Nothing scary and nothing too difficult to grasp. Right? Now, let me wade into what radon is.

Radon starts out as naturally occurring Uranium. Uranium is scattered through out the rocks and soil just about everywhere on earth. This type of Uranium is not the same as they type used for nuclear fuel or weapons, but it's still Uranium and it is an unstable atom.

This Uranium gives out radiation, and changes into a different atom. This lighter atom, however, is still unstable, and so the process of giving out radiation, and getting a bit lighter continues. Eventually, this slow and gradual migration of natural Uranium toward a stable state happens to reach a special type of atom. This atom is called Radon, and it's special, not because it is unstable and radioactive, but because it is a gas that is both of these things. As a gas, it can escape from the ground and get into the air.

Radon in and of itself isn't dangerous. However, as an unstable atom it's not the last stop in the chain of Uranium decay. After Radon decays, it turns into four different atoms that scientists affectionately call its "daughters." It is these daughters than can pose a risk to humans in some situations.

These daughters decay very rapidly and when they do they release an alpha particle. This is a type of radiation that is essentially harmless when outside of the body. This alpha particle can be stopped by only a few centimeters of air, or a piece of paper. However, if this type of radiation is produced inside of you (for instance in your lungs) then it becomes the most dangerous type. Because radon is a gas, it can be inhaled and this alpha particle can be released while it's inside some one's lung. The occasional alpha particle is unavoidable, the problem comes from repeated exposure. Repeated, high, internal exposures to these four, alpha-emitting daughters can increase your chance of developing lung cancer.

Radon and its four daughters are everywhere in the soil and in the air. Radon is another inescapable, usually harmless fact of life on earth. It seeps up from the soil and water and dissipates harmlessly in the atmosphere. However, when radon is allowed to collect it can cause a problem. This happens most often in basements. A basement's walls are below the soil level by definition and so the naturally-occurring radon in the soil seeps into the basement where it collects in a colorless, odorless, tasteless cloud. You can only tell it's there with a radon detector kit. However, if you spend enough time breathing in that radon cloud it could, over the long term, slightly increase your chance of developing certain lung cancers.

Remember that this is only possible if the Radon is allowed to accumulate. If you have Radon in your basement, a simple ventilation system is all you need to take care of it. The key is to prevent it from accumulating. Outside of an enclosed basement or the crawl space under a house, it is nearly impossible for Radon to accumulate. The EPA has a great website dedicated to a panic-free discussion of Radon, its risks and its mitigations. Give it a read if you'd like some more information on these topics.

So now I hope you have a basic understanding of an atom, of radiation, radioactivity and of Radon. Tomorrow I'm going to talk about how Radon gets into some granites and what there is to do about it.


  1. Who ever in their right mind would have suspected getting a physics lesson from a design and kitchen blog?! I *love* it.

    I think you're right that most people are NOT stupid, we merely aren't as informed as we could be.

    THANK YOU to you and Chris both for putting together this information. The explanation is written clearly and concisely, using informative metaphors and descriptors. I'm looking forward to tomorrow's continuation.

  2. Thank you Rae. I was worried about losing people with this post and the post to come, but you know what? Where else are people going to learn about this whole radon/ granite flap?

    I am thrilled to hear that you got something from this. Thrilled!

  3. Chris the physicist here. Glad that at least someone enjoyed this. Helping out a little was a pleasant diversion from other more serious work, and if it helps even a handful of people be a bit more sensible then it was worth it.

    I can't take much credit for this really though, as all I did was offer advice, most of this is Paul's work :D

  4. I think you mean Chris the brilliant physicist. Thank you again for your help in getting this information into a manageable format and in front of a group of people who'd otherwise never hear it. You my friend, rock!

  5. I would have liked chemistry better in high school if you and Chris were my teachers :-)

    We hear all these buzz words and catchphrases like Radon and off-gassing, but nobody bothers to explain them the way the two of you did.




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