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by Louisa May

Fifteen minutesAndy Warhol would have loved this. The late American artist coined the phrase, “fifteen minutes of fame.” He was referring to the fleeting condition of celebrity that attaches itself to an object of media attention briefly until our collective short attention span moves on to something new.

The last week of July, our attention was focused on the dangers of radon gas seeping from granite kitchen countertops. It started with a New York Times newspaper article appearing in the July 24, 2008 Home and Garden section titled, ” What’s Lurking in Your Countertop?”

GraniteCatching consumers’ attention were the two homeowners featured. They were concerned with higher than normal radon emissions from their granite countertops. Granite is a naturally occurring igneous rock, and it’s possible for any piece of granite to contain varying concentrations of uranium. Radon is a naturally occurring, colorless, odorless gas generated by the decay of trace amounts of uranium, and its presence in indoor air is considered a health hazard.

On July 25, 2008, CBS Early Show program host Harry Smith talked with Stanley Liebert, the quality assurance director at CMT Laboratories in Clifton Park, New York. Mr Liebert had been interviewed for the New York Times article on radon in granite countertops. Mr. Liebert said that some granite countertop colors are more potentially troublesome than others. “We’re seeing higher (radon) results in reds, pinks, purples. However, you’ve got to test them all.” But the real drama began on CBS when Mr. Liebert produced a chunk of granite countertop that emitted 4.4 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L) of radon. The amount of radon in air is measured in picoCuries per liter.The EPA recommends that the radon level in indoor air be under 4 picoCuries. “The probability is we’re looking at a problem here, and the granite would actually be removed,” said Mr. Liebert.

Late in the day, on July 25, 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a new, stronger statement in its Answers for Consumers column regarding radon in granite countertops. The EPA held that “while some granite used for countertops may contribute variably to indoor radon levels, at this time the EPA does not believe that sufficient data exists to conclude that the types of granite used in kitchen countertops are significantly increasing indoor radon levels.”

Are the levels of radon found in granite countertops dangerous to humans? The new EPA answer reads,” While radon levels attributable to granite are not typically high, there are simply too many variables to generalize about potential health risks inside a particular house that has granite countertops.” The answer goes on to say that indoor air should have a radon level as far below 4 picoCuries per liter of air (pCi/L) as possible, and that home radon testing kits are available.

The Marble Institute of America (MIA), is the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to the stone industry.This group wants to assure people that studies of granite used in countertops in the United States prove that granite countertops are safe. According to MIA, much confusion is being created by “inconsistent methodologies used in testing radon emissions in countertops.”

So, what to do? The evidence is inconclusive, but it’s smart to be careful. Radon is an unstable gas and dissipates quickly in fresh air. One solution that often works to lower radon levels indoors is to open windows. Radon kits cost about $25.00 at a retail store, and if you have granite countertops, it’s worth the small investment to test the radon levels in your kitchen.

If you test for radon and the levels come in at 4 pCi/L or above, there are easy ways to reduce the radon levels in your home. Contact your state radon office at www.epa.gov/iag.whereyoulive.html for assistance.

Check out our Green Pages for information on money saving tips that help the environment. Once there, click on the Green Forum to see more articles by our green feature writer Louisa May.

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