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Aug. 4, 2008
Mr. Clark Hoyt
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, N.Y., 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.
Marble Institute of America