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Can granite be harmful?

It might emit radon – or not. Here's what experts say.

By Nancy Stancill
Home and Garden Editor

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  • Countertop Choices

    Granite is still the leading countertop material in the Charlotte area, say Charlotte-area stores. But there are other choices. Here is a quick comparison of materials.

    GRANITE

    Best for: Homes without messy family members and those who want an upscale look.

    Price: $60-85 per square foot installed.

    Pros: Natural beauty in multiple finishes and exotic colors, can pick own slab, resists heat, durable, waterproof, can be honed to produce a matte finish.

    Cons: Porous and stains if not properly sealed, can scratch, bacterial concerns.

    Maintenance: Needs sealing once or twice a year by homeowner.

    SOAPSTONE

    Best for: Trophy kitchens or those that don't get a lot of use.

    Price: $60-$125 per square foot installed.

    Pros: Earthy appeal that oxidizes over time to produce a dark color with light veining, nonporous, scratches can be repaired with sandpaper.

    Cons: It's soft and can chip, especially on corners, limited color choice.

    Maintenance: Leave alone or rub with mineral oil every 4 to 6 weeks.

    QUARTZ (Silestone, Cambria, Zodiaq)

    Best for: Those who cook a lot and have messy family members.

    Price: $75-$90 per square foot installed.

    Pros: Durable, nonporous, resistant to scratches and stains, doesn't chip, more uniform appearance, no bacterial issues, many choices, some have 10-year warranty.

    Cons: Not as natural looking, undermount sink has to be cut carefully to match.

    Maintenance: Needs no sealing or refinishing. Easy to clean.

    MARBLE

    Pros: Ideal for pastry prep or trophy kitchens not used for much cooking. Beautiful and natural looking, waterproof, heat resistant, wide range of colors.

    Price: $65-90 per square foot installed.

    Cons: More porous than granite so it's prone to etching and stains, bacterial issues, chips, not strong enough for heavy-use kitchens.

    Maintenance: Needs annual sealing. Use mild cleaners without vinegar or citric acid.

    STAINLESS STEEL

    Pros: Good choice for those who want a contemporary, industrial look. Nonporous, resists bacterial growth, variety of finishes, heat resistant, will not fade or chip.

    Price: $80-$110 per square foot installed.

    Cons: More expensive than granite or quartz, may scratch or dent, fabrication is expensive, can't cut on it directly.

    Maintenance: Like stainless appliances, can fingerprint and is time-consuming to keep it looking clean. Towel dry after use. Clean with mild cleanser only.

    SOLID SURFACE (Corian, Swanstone, Avonite)

    Pros: Best for high-traffic kitchens where a lot of cooking is done. Durable, long-lasting, heat and stain resistant, nonporous, resists bacterial growth, can be repaired easily, some offer 10-year warranty.

    Price: $60-95 per square foot installed.

    Cons: Falling out of fashion, not as natural looking as stone, not heat or scratch resistant.

    Maintenance: Soapy water or ammonia-based cleaners will remove most dirt and stains. Minor blemishes can be sanded out or removed with mild household abrasive.

    LAMINATE (Formica, Nevamar and Wilsonart)

    Pros: Best for budget-minded homeowners. Easy to install, resists stains and heat, durability has improved, choices are varied, including those that resemble granite.

    Price: $30-$40 per square foot installed.

    Cons: Doesn't add as much value for resale, scratches and chips almost impossible to repair, most have visible seams although some post-formed seamless versions are available.

    Maintenance: Cleans easily.

    SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL and OBSERVER STAFF



Could your granite countertops emit enough radon gas to make you sick?

A recent New York Times story set off alarms over the issue, but federal and state officials, granite sellers and local radon testers say they strongly doubt it. However, nobody is willing to say that all granite is radon-free.

Granite, after all, is a stone mined from the earth, and like all natural materials, can contain traces of radiation. However, experts say the biggest radon threat homeowners face is from basements, where the gas can seep in from the ground.

Radon is a cancer-causing natural radioactive gas that you can't see, smell or taste. It's dangerous only if it exceeds certain levels in your indoor environment, says the Environmental Protection Agency.

Homes should be tested periodically and if there's a problem, it can be fixed fairly easily, say inspectors.

So before you start worrying about your kitchen countertops, listen to what the experts say.

Insufficient evidence

Here's the EPA's bottom line: It doesn't have sufficient evidence to conclude that the types of granite used in countertops increase indoor radon levels.

“I'm not saying it couldn't happen,” Kristy Miller, an EPA spokesperson, told the Observer. “There could be some very isolated problems here and there.”

Rumors that granite countertops can emit potentially harmful amounts of radon gas have simmered for a decade, fueled mostly by industry competitors, said Miller.

But the subject got renewed attention a few months ago when the New York Times' Home section published a story about it. The article said scientists agree that granite countertops emit radiation at extremely low levels. But it quoted one homeowner who promptly ripped them out after a technician found elevated readings.

The popularity of granite countertops has prompted suppliers to look for more “exotic” granite offerings. Granite now comes from more than 60 countries, and some unusual granites may contain more radon gas than the more commonly sold types, the story said.

The EPA says it has no information from which to judge whether that could be true – or not.

The Marble Institute of America, the trade group for granite and other stone products, has fought the radon issue vigorously.

“Compared to other radiation sources in the home and outside, the risk to the homeowner from radioactivity emitted from a granite countertop or tiles is practically nonexistent,” says the institute's position paper.

Felix Fong, who manages the radon program for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said he's measured radon levels randomly in granite sold at N.C. stores. He said he hasn't found any granite with elevated radon levels..

“We haven't found any cases in North Carolina so far,” said Fong.

If your countertop contains radon, he said, the amount would be “very small” and would likely dissipate into the kitchen air.

If you're concerned about radon levels, Fong said, you should measure from the lowest lived-in area of your house. Radon generally comes in from soil, through gaps in the floors.

He says consumers can buy do-it-yourself radon detectors for about $10 in home stores, or order one through the state's radon Web site, www.ncradon.org. The site also lists certified radon testers in Charlotte and across the state..

If consumers check their countertops and get an elevated reading (exceeding 4 picocuries per liter of air), he advises to test one or two more times.

Customers not worried

The Observer checked with about a dozen Charlotte-area granite dealers and certified radon testers and the Better Business Bureau here and found no verified instances of countertops with high levels of radon.

Noah Licht, who owns Queen City Countertops in Monroe with his father and brothers, said he's aware of concern in the industry, but not among his customers.

“I don't think consumer confidence has been shaken on this at all,” said Licht. “People aren't calling me asking if their granite is safe.”

Jennifer Creasser, marketing director for The Tile Collection in Pineville, said a few customers called after the New York Times story to ask questions. But no one has canceled a granite order.

“In the grand scheme of health concerns, it seems a bit silly,” she said.

Dave Hahn, manager of Metrolina Inspection Services and a state-certified radon tester, said he advises customers not to bother testing granite countertops. But homeowners should periodically test their homes overall for radon, particularly basements, he emphasized.

“Any house, anywhere in the world, could have a radon problem,” Hahn said. He estimates that one or two of every 10 homes he checks has elevated radon levels. Charlotte isn't an area with high incidences of radon problems, he notes.

A radon inspection, often done when homes change hands, costs about $150, Hahn said.

The most accurate tests are carried out over time, ranging from three or four days to several weeks.

It's difficult to get accurate readings of countertops, he said, because broad surfaces tend to have “hot” and “cold” spots that may or may not affect air quality.

If you find a hot spot, Hahn said, that's no reason to rip out your countertops. Mitigation techniques that increase clean air intake can reduce radon gases anywhere in the house.

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