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Exposure to Radon Causes Lung Cancer but is Granite Causing Cancer?

Prolonged exposure to radon causes lung cancer and about 21,000 Americans die of radon-related lung cancer every year. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that radon causes between 6-15 percent of lung cancers worldwide. Evidence has recently surfaced that granite is causing cancer through the amounts of radon it emits through manmade granite products.

Radon is emitted through the decay of uranium which is widespread and naturally occurring in the earth’s crust. A dense, colorless, odorless and tasteless noble gas (Atomic Number 86), radon cannot be detected without a testing device. Because it is a radioactive gas, it can be deadly if inhaled or ingested in concentrated amounts. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and US Surgeon General strongly recommend that all homes be tested for radon on a regular basis.

“Indoor radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and breathing it over prolonged periods can present a significant health risk to families all over the county,” said. US Surgeon General Dr. Richard H. Carmona in a 2005 United States Health and Human Services press release. “It's important to know that this threat is completely preventable. Radon can be detected with a simple test and fixed through well-established venting techniques.”

Indoor exposure to radon can be attributed to naturally-occurring radon seeping into buildings through cracks and other openings from the soil. The amounts of radon vary from location to location with the uranium content of underlying earth. Radon concentrations are typically found in basements and cellars due to the high density of the gas.

Radon can also be emitted from within through common building materials such as granite that contain traces of uranium. Granite is extensively used as flooring tiles and construction materials. Because of its durability and aesthetic value, it has also become the material of choice for monuments, fireplaces and furniture such as kitchen countertops. Trace amounts of uranium can also be found in other construction materials such as concrete, drywall and brick that also emit radon. Granite contains 10-20 parts of uranium per million.

The extent to which exposure to radon causes lung cancer was recently a hot topic among rock climbers, as many popular rock climbing sites are naturally-occurring granite formations. In addition to lung cancer, a May 2005, CNN report linked extended exposure to granite to a heightened risk of esophageal cancer.

Granite Causing Cancer

Recent data has shown that occupational exposure to granite can increase the risk of lung cancer. The American Journal of Industrial Medicine reported in 2004 that cumulative exposure to granite dust led to an excess of lung cancer, kidney cancer and other respiratory ailments among Vermont granite workers. A 1991 study by the Department of Community, Occupational and Family Medicine of the National University of Singapore cites the exposure to free silica in granite as a possible contributing factor to lung cancer in nine Chinese granite workers.

That exposure to radon causes lung cancer is universally accepted as fact. But is granite causing cancer through common man-made products like kitchen countertops?

Studies suggest that granite might be the next asbestos. Scientists Michael Kitto and John Green from the Department of Health and School of Public Health respectively, have been measuring the quantity of radon emitted by pieces of countertops. The scientists reported that “a majority of the countertops emitted a measureable amount of radon” and “some granite countertops have the potential to influence indoor radon levels.”

Once a widespread building material, asbestos has been banned in much of the industrialized world after it was proven to cause mesothelioma and asbestosis. The EPA issued a blanket ban on the use of asbestos in 1989 only to see the ban overturned in 1991 by the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals when the asbestos-dependent industry challenged the ban in Corrosion Proof Fittings vs. EPA.

The mere allusion that granite is causing cancer has already met the same kind of industry-led resistance that lifted the ban on asbestos. The Marble Institute of America (MIA) has attempted to discredit the studies that suggest exposure to radon emitted by manmade granite products may be a health hazard.