Granite and Radon: The New York Times takes a roll in the mud

October 3, 2008
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I really thought that The New York Times was better than this. When my publisher walked into my office and showed me their article entitled “What’s Lurking in Your Countertop?” it reminded me of the sort of sensationalistic nonsense one might find in the tabloids - right next to the latest gossip on Lindsay Lohan. I literally did a double take to make sure I was holding the right newspaper.

But there it was, in The New York Times (once regarded as the standard bearer for outstanding journalism), a “hard news” story to generate consumer fears - complete with that oh-so-cheesy question mark at the end of the headline. “What’s Lurking in Your Countertop?” Wow, sounds pretty ominous - like a summer horror flick.

And, of course, a notable portion of the general public reacted to this story exactly the way one might expect them to. That is, they freaked out. As you will read later in this article, there are tales about families refusing to come to the door when the countertop installation crews arrived; massive granite orders being canceled; and one account of a gentleman who abandoned his home and moved his family into a hotel to escape his deadly granite countertops (really, he did).

Like I said, I see these types of stories in the media all the time - and it seems to me that they’re rarely well researched and even more rarely written by someone who understands the topic. A few years back, I remember one of the New York tabloids doing a five-part series on how New York City public schools may be slowly killing the students. I honestly don’t recall what came of that - other than a lot of panic-stricken parents and kids being pulled out of school - but it was quite a mess.

I guess with so many other media outlets available to consumers - particularly the endless stream of free electronic information available - The New York Times felt it could create a buzz by preying on consumer fears. And while that’s not how they built their reputation in the field, that’s certainly their right. I just wish that their reporter - and editors - took the time to research the story a bit deeper before going forward with the piece.

I’m not personally going to go into why The New York Times story is flawed, because an industry professional has already done an admirable job of that, which I am going to share here. Earlier this month, Jim Hogan, President of the Marble Institute of America (MIA), wrote a letter to Clark Hoyt, Public Editor of The New York Times. As of press time, I have no idea if the letter will actually run (and my guess is that it won’t), but here it is:


August 4, 2008

Mr. Clark Hoyt
Public Editor
The New York Times


Dear Mr. Hoyt:

The New York Times on July 24 ran a story in the Home & Garden section that both misled readers and caused many to panic unnecessarily about possible safety issues in their homes. The article was one-sided, and we respectfully ask you to consider a follow-up story to highlight competing views.

The article, titled “What’s Lurking in Your Countertop,” by Kate Murphy, focused on granite countertops and whether they emit unhealthy levels of radon and radiation. Lynn Sugarman, a Lake George, NY, resident, told the reporter that radon gas levels in her kitchen were 100 picocuries per liter of air, compared with the EPA’s action level of 4 picocuries. The article led readers to believe that the high level was attributable to Ms. Sugarman’s granite countertops.

First, we need to emphasize that, in order to reach that level of radon in Ms. Sugarman’s home, assuming an average home of 2,000 square feet, her countertop would have to emit 66,800 becquerels of radiation per square meter of countertop per hour. The highest emission reported in the scientific literature is 13.1 becquerels per square meter of countertop per hour! That means that Ms. Sugarman’s countertop would have to emit more than 5,000 times the maximum amount recorded!

Even if one considers the possibility that her countertop emitted radiation at the highest rate ever recorded in uncorroborated research – approximately 230 becquerels per meter squared per hour – the countertop would still have to emit at more than 294 times the maximum ever recorded!

To put this in context, a typical 54-square-foot granite countertop would have to emit more than 2,600 becquerels per meter square per hour to reach the EPA action guideline of 4 picocuries per liter of air in the typical home. That would require emission rates literally 200 times the highest corroborated rate of 13.1 becquerels.

Beyond this obvious problem with the basic physics, the article had other significant deficiencies:

  • The article did not tell readers that Lake George is a Zone 1 radon site, according to the state of New York. Some geographies have naturally high radon readings, which can affect levels of radon inside a home. Ms. Sugarman lives in one of the highest radon regions in the country. EPA explains that the primary source of radon – by far – in any home is the soil surrounding the structure. Unfortunately, this was not explained or even mentioned.
  • The article did not discuss details of the testing. To measure radon, one must calculate the emission rate in connection with the volume of air in the home. Radon emissions measured in an enclosed container – such as an inverted bucket – represent concentrations that do not reflect the fact that radon, like paint fumes, generally dilutes harmlessly into a home’s air. An analogy might be to invert a pan over a stovetop burner to measure the temperature. The pan would get very hot. However, how likely is it that leaving the burner on all the time would raise the average home temperature by even one degree? Unfortunately, no one bothered to address the dilution factor – which is clearly part of EPA’s standards for testing radon levels.
  • There appears to have been confusion between radon and radiation. We presume that your tester used the same methodology as he did in a CBS report the following morning. That methodology used a Geiger counter to “measure” radon. Unfortunately, Geiger counters cannot be used to measure radon. They are simply not designed for that chore. And, what also did not get mentioned is the fact that Geiger counters will react similarly to radiation emanating from granite countertops and smoke detectors and Brazil nuts and concrete blocks and many other things. “Clicking” does not necessarily equate to danger. Unfortunately, this was not explained.
  • Finally, we find it odd that, despite the article’s emphasis of the dangers of granite countertops, Ms. Sugarman chose to replace her granite counters with . . . granite countertops. This irony was, unfortunately, mentioned at the very end of the article - long after most consumers stopped reading, we suspect.

Exposure to background radiation emanating from common building materials, including granite, has been studied extensively for decades by both government and university researchers.

The reporter apparently made no effort to reach out to scientists who might have expressed opposing views on the issue, relying instead on a radon technician who a skeptical reader might suspect would benefit from a rise in the demand for radon testing.

Although the reporter did quote the Marble Institute of America calling radon allegations “ludicrous,” she did not provide any context or hint that any tests were conducted, which might have given the MIA an opportunity to offer some corrective counsel – or at least to suggest she speak with numerous respected scientists who could have provided more context about why the claims are dubious. This would have put the issue into better perspective.

As it is, granite countertop owners around the country are panicking. One customer told a dealer this week that he wants to cancel a recent order for more than $40,000. Another customer left his home and moved into a hotel. Customers are extremely concerned and expressing groundless fears.

Please consider running a follow-up story that addresses the issue with a bit more scientific rigor. We appreciate your attention.


Sincerely,
Jim Hogan, President
Marble Institute of America


Damage control

Regardless of how well researched (or poorly researched) The New York Times story actually is, the reality of the matter is that the natural stone industry has had to respond swiftly to allow consumer fears - and it will have to deal with this matter for some time in the future. This story was also picked up by several major national networks - most recently NBC’s “Today” show. And while the networks, particularly NBC, took a more logical approach than the Times - based more on fact than speculation - this publicity is less than ideal.

Here are just a few of the steps being taken to offset the negative publicity:

  • The Natural Stone Council (NSC) announced its unequivocal support for granite as a safe, natural material for use indoors based on prior research and, most recently, both an independent study funded by NSC member, the MIA, and newly issued U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statements reaffirming that granite poses no health risk. On Friday, July 25, 2008, the EPA released new statements asserting that no credible evidence exists to suggest that granite countertops pose any safety threat. Citing its own assessment of various studies the agency statement said, in part, the “EPA has no reliable data to conclude that types of granite used in countertops are significantly increasing indoor radon levels.” “Rumors about the safety of granite have been circulated for years,” said John Mattke, Co-Chair of the NSC and Chairman of the NSC’s Sustainability Committee. “However, the facts remain the same. There is no credible scientific evidence suggesting that granite countertops pose a significant radon risk.” The NSC does not refute that some types of granite do emit radon gas, but studies have shown that the majority of stones tested generate either unmeasurable or insignificant emissions that are well below the levels requiring EPA-recommended remediation. Moreover, the EPA has repeatedly stated that it has never found any evidence that granite countertops contribute significant amounts of radon to a home. Its statements on Friday apparently came in response to a media-fueled panic resulting from questionable reports suggesting that granite posed a health risk, reports the NSC.
  • The National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) - which has long recognized the carcinogenic effects of radon in the home - has endorsed the MIA as a reliable source of information regarding granite and radon. An associate member of the NKBA, the MIA has prepared a thorough analysis of radon levels and granite in its 2008 Radon Study. This study, as well as a consumer radon brochure and additional documents concerning radon in granite countertops, are available at www.marble-institute.com .
  • Following a meeting with some of the leading stone producers in Italy, Internazionale Marmi e Macchine (organizer of the CarraraMarmotec Fair) approved the unscheduled funding of $20,000 to support a promotional campaign providing the correct information regarding to the characteristics of granite. “The Italian companies operating in this industry are very worried about what has been happening over the last few weeks in the U.S., where there is currently a campaign underway declaring that granite is actually bad for your health. This message jeopardizes the entire sector and affects all producers all over the world, including Italian companies. In order to fight this very well-organized media campaign, very substantial funds are necessary - since a marketing project is required not only to contrast the wrong or distorted information, but also to relaunch the “Made in Italy” products in the U.S. which is fundamental for Italian companies,” stated IMM Chairman Giorgio Bianchini.
  • The Marble Institute of America has been working diligently to fight the fallout from The New York Times article. “Given that much of the material the MIA has shared with its members has found its way to public Web sites, it is being cautious in disseminating details of its plan of action,” according to Hogan. “However, I want to clearly state that the Marble Institute of America is making very serious, comprehensive efforts to protect the granite industry - as well as its consumers. We fear it is no coincidence that Cambria and Silestone both issued advertisements and announcements in the last week that their products are ‘certified’ to be radon-free just as the public furor over this issue boiled over. And we are saddened that anyone would attempt to prey on public fears - particularly those generated through the dissemination of misleading information - to benefit financially from the consumer panic.” The organization also recommended some additional resources to dispel consumer fears. “I suspect [industry members] may need additional sources of information - including some independent sources. To that end, I would like to recommend that, [anyone who] wishes to refer customers to an independent Web site that provides a rational discussion of the radon realities, they refer them to  www.radon.com/radon/granite.html. They will find a special page posted just last week by Air Chek, Inc., one of America’s largest providers of radon test kits. I think [people] will find the page to be both useful and calming to their customers. We spoke to the company this week and learned that its inquiries have risen significantly in the past week. However, despite the fact that Air Chek benefits financially from radon testing, the company’s executives are distressed that so many people are driven by needless fears.”
  • The MIA continues to promote its Truth About Granite Fund. “As you know, the MIA does not have the resources in place to undertake this kind of aggressive defense of the industry,” Hogan said. “We need [the industry’s] financial support. I hope [members] will help us protect our industry’s good name by writing a check to the Marble Institute of America/Truth About Granite Fund. Those checks can be sent to the Marble Institute of America, 28901 Clemens Road, Suite 100, Cleveland, OH 44145. Over 100 companies from around the world have already contributed, and that support is very much appreciated.”
  • StonExpo/Marmomacc Americas, together with the MIA, announced it will present a session within the educational program at StonExpo/Marmomacc Americas addressing the on-going debate surrounding radon and granite. The exhibition, which is owned and produced by Hanley Wood Exhibitions, will be held October 15 to 18, 2008 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, NV. “This is a unique and once-a-year opportunity for the natural stone industry to leverage the weight of an event like StonExpo to gain momentum and unity in our efforts to both refute these allegations and highlight the many attributes, including safety of granite as the premier countertop material,” said Gary Distelhorst, Executive Vice President of the MIA. “StonExpo is the perfect place to present this message because it’s the one place each year where the stone industry arrives en masse, and it is where we can both educate the industry and ask for support in one place.” The session will take place on the all-new StonExchange area on the show floor, and while registration is required, it is complimentary for all attendees and exhibitors. Titled “Granite and Radon - An Industry Update,” and led by members of the MIA, the session is scheduled for Thursday, October 16, 2008 from 4:15 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. Participants will discuss the advances the stone industry is making with new scientific studies, the Truth About Granite (TAG) fund and the MIA’s global involvement. For more information on StonExpo/Marmomacc Americas, please call (866) 550-6808 or visit www.StonExpo.com.

Moving beyond industry initiatives, a growing number of environmental and health agencies from states across the U.S. have issued new statements that all conclude that granite countertops typically found in homes do not pose a health risk to consumers.

Perplexed by inaccurate science and misleading statements about granite, radon and radioactivity reported in the media in recent weeks, consumers are contacting health and environmental agencies in their respective states for reassurance about the safety of granite countertops in their homes.  In response, several agencies have issued statements that conclude that granite countertops do not place consumers’ health at risk.

Among the state-based health and environmental agencies that have taken a position on granite countertop safety to date are:

  • Florida Department of Health (FDAH), which recently posted this statement on its Web site:  “With the concern over the radioactive risk potential of granite countertops, it is important to remember that we are always exposed to a certain level of background radiation. All granite, and most earthen materials, contain trace amounts of uranium and radium, emit gamma radiation and release radon gas. While the Florida Department of Health has never performed a study specifically designed to evaluate any health risks of granite countertops, staff from the Florida Department of Health’s (DOH) Bureau of Radiation Control and from DOH’s Radon Program have had the opportunity over the years to survey various granite samples for gamma emissions, including a few granite countertops, and have yet to find granite thought to be a significant gamma radiation hazard.  The term ‘significant’ is used because there was measurable gamma radiation from the granite as there is always around us, just not at level of concern.”
  • Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS), which takes a similar position on the issue.  On its Web site, the TDSHS states:  “The amount of radioactivity in most granite is quite small. While it is possible to get a measurable level of direct radiation from some granite, in general it emits less radiation than we are regularly exposed to from background radiation.  These levels are so low that they are not harmful to human health.”
  • New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) points out the three most common sources of radon:  “Recently, there have been several news stories regarding granite countertops potentially affecting radon levels in the home. They have resulted in an increased number of phone calls to the Radon Program and have caused some concern among residents that have granite countertops, floors and fireplaces.  Radiation is all around us.  Naturally-occurring radiation is present in the environment, and we are all exposed to it.  The three primary sources of natural radiation are: 1) terrestrial radiation from soil and soil gases; 2) cosmic radiation from the sun and outer space; and 3) internal radiation due to naturally-occurring radiation in the body.”
  • North Carolina Geological Survey, whose Assistant State Geologist, Kenneth Taylor, says he seriously doubts radon from most natural stone counters is enough to hurt anyone.  “Almost all igneous rocks have some small amount of radiation,” he said.
  • Washington State Department of Health (WSDOH) issued a statement saying:  “If the stone is properly sealed, there is little likelihood that the granite will cause a radon problem. Even if the countertop is releasing some radiation, that does not mean it will be a radon problem or public health concern. Based on our experience with radon and radiation issues, we would not let this be the deciding factor on whether or not to get granite countertops.”

To date, no state health or environmental agency has taken a position that supports the inaccurate testing and misleading information reported in recent new stories, but at least 13 agencies are directing consumers to get information on the issue from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  EPA recently updated its position on granite countertops: “Based on existing studies, most types of granite used in countertops and other aspects of home construction are not typically known to be major contributors of radiation and radon in the average home.”

These state agencies join a long list of scientific experts who have already gone on record to reassure the public that no corroborated scientific research suggests that granite countertops pose any significant health risk, including:

  • The American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST), whose members are experts in the field of radon testing and research.
  • Dr. John McCarthy, president of Environmental Health & Engineering (EHE), a public health consulting firm in suburban Boston, who has overseen more than 2,500 indoor environmental quality assessments.
  • Health Physics Society (HPS), a scientific and professional organization whose members specialize in occupational and environmental radiation safety.
  • Dr. L.L. Chyi, professor of geochemistry and environmental geology at the Department of Geology and Environmental Science, University of Akron.
  • David Ropeick, noted author of the book “Risk,” agreed with McCarthy that recent media reports are needlessly confusing consumers about the safety of granite countertops.

“Largely because of the misinformation reported by the media in the past few weeks, consumers have been needlessly concerned about the safety of their granite countertops, but as top experts on the issues, as well as national and state health and environmental agencies are stating, their concern is unfounded,” said Hogan. “The bottom line for consumers is this:  Granite countertops are every bit as safe as they are beautiful, durable and practical.”

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