September 21, 2008

What’s Nuking in the Kitchen

By Abby Lu

THERE was one thing that evaded our mothers' scrutiny when they lectured us on the health hazards of ordinary things such as mobile phones, microwave ovens and barbequed food ... but it was probably because they didn't know about it either.

A New York Times article has revealed that expensive granite countertops, a common fixture in kitchens, could contain more than bargained for.

An igneous rock (formed of magma), granite is the natural source of radiation, as it contains uranium, the mineral used in producing nuclear weapons. What that means is that granite decays, we could be exposed to both radioactivity and radon gas.

Although experts point out that most countertops do not contain enough radioactive materials to cause a health threat, some people prefer to eliminate the risk altogether. At elevated level, radon can cause lung cancer while radiation is harmful to children and developing foetuses.

Defending granite, the Marble Institute of America (MIA) said offending "hot" varieties are the "exotic and striated" (streaked) range originating from Brazil and Namibia. The rest are cool.

Incensed by the New York Times report which MIA has denounced as citing "junk science" and a result of "inconsistent testing", it has posted responses on its website including a study recently conducted by the University of Akron.

In it, Dr Chyi L.L. from the Department of Geology and Environmental Science concluded that most granite countertops "add only insignificant amount of radon to the house" - something that health physicists and radiation experts agree with.

Their view: It is negligible in comparison to "background radiation" that comes from outer space, within the earth and manmade sources such as X-rays, emissions from nuclear reactors, cigarette smoke and luminous watches.

Nevertheless, the debate brings to mind the infamous 1950's statement from an American cigarette brand that "more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette".

Whether granite is rogue or tame is still up in the air, but it wasn't till some 20 years later that America realised the apparent health dangers of tobacco.

(c) 2008 New Straits Times. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.