“What’s lurking in your countertop?” asked the July article in the New York Times.
“Are granite countertops a health threat?” asked CBS News.
I pondered these questions the other day as I stood at my granite-tile countertop, cutting an apple for my toddler. Would radiation emanate from the counter, up through the cutting board, into the apple? Would radon gas waft into the slices? Were tumors forming on my lungs at that very moment?
I looked for some reassurance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Some granite used for countertops may contribute variably to indoor radon levels,“ the EPA said in a release. “At this time, however, EPA does not believe sufficient data exist to conclude that the types of granite commonly used in countertops are significantly increasing indoor radon levels.”
“At this time”? OK, that didn’t help too much.
Feeling queasy about this, I went to somebody with plenty of hands-on experience: Jimmy Clay, an interior designer and sales manager for Artisan Kitchen and Bath on Magazine Street.
Don’t pull out your granite countertops, Clay says. He points out that people have used granite for centuries. He used it in a recent renovation of his own house. “It’s something that is a non-issue,” Clay says. “You’re not going to find any amount of radiation in granite that’s going to cause any health issues.”
There’s a reason granite is popular. It doesn’t stain, and only diamonds are harder. You can put a hot pot on it. It’s a material that seems destined for countertops.
Still, for the sake of the world’s hypochondriacs –– and those who just need new countertops –– Clay took the time to tell me about other options.
Laminate. Also known commonly as Formica, laminate is an inexpensive alternative, but you get what you pay for. A laminate countertop is not durable. The surface is thin. It can easily scratch, chip or scorch, and it is almost impossible to repair. It will have visible seams.
“I’ve actually never done a laminate top in the past five years,” Clay says. Then he offers this kiss of death: “You see them a lot in rentals.”
Tile. Anyone who has ever had a tile countertop, like I have, knows the biggest drawback: The grout lines stain easily. I once had a beautiful porcelain-tile countertop that I’ll never forget –– nor will I ever forget the long day I spent scraping out the old stained grout. Clay says the grout is highly porous and harbors bacteria. He also points out that some types of tile start to look “dated” rather quickly.
Concrete. Concrete countertops came around recently as a trend and then went away, Clay says. He suspects that the trend ended because it takes a lot of expertise to get the finish and look right. Also, he says, concrete is “very, very porous,” so it has to be sealed well, and that requires expertise. The upside is that you can stain it any color, he says, “so you can really get a true custom look.”
Solid surface. Often known by brand names such as Corian, Avonite and Swanstone, fabricated solid-surface countertops are seamless and completely nonporous. Scratches can be sanded out. However, they’re vulnerable to hot pans. And Clay says they’re expensive –– typically more than granite.
Wood. Wood is not usually employed as the only countertop material but rather as one surface mixed with other materials. The most common is the butcher block. It is built from the end grains of the wood, and you can cut directly on it.
Wood can also be used as an accent piece, Clay says, but it can scratch easily and needs to be oiled regularly. Also, it can stain easily because it is so porous.
Stainless steel. Clay says stainless steel offers a commercial restaurant appearance. “It’s very modern; it’s a very sleek look,” he says. It will scratch easily, but Clay says it’s meant to look worn and will take on a “nice patina.”
Quartz. Quartz countertops are 90 percent ground quartz with binding material. It will have a seam on installation. Care is easy, but the price is about the same as solid surface. Because it’s an engineered material, it’s easy to match if you want to install a new piece later.
Marble. Marble is waterproof and heat-proof but much more porous than granite and therefore vulnerable to staining. If you like the look, Clay says, this can result in a nice patina. Marble is about the same price as granite, unless you select a rare color.
Clay says marble makes for a great dough surface because it stays cool to the touch. He says people with multiple countertops may want to include marble in the mix. “If you aspire to be a chef, it’s nice to have multiple countertops in the kitchen,” he says.
Other possibilities are emerging. Clay sees a couple of trends in the near future in the form of zinc and pewter tops. He also expects to see wood used more often as an accent piece.
Clay says one of the mistakes people often make is to pick out the most common thing and go with it. He says the countertop typically accounts for about 15 percent of a kitchen renovation. If you’re using marble or granite, he recommends going to the stone yard to pick out your surface because it may vary from showroom samples. Pay attention to the countertop, Clay says, because “this is a true accent piece for the kitchen.”