There’s a Story in Here Somewhere

One of the banes of the news business is coming across a bogey, where you turn over a bunch of stones … and end up with a bunch of upside-down rocks. Or – even worse – you end up with plenty of facts and documents, but nothing fits into a straight, cohesive article.

In other words, you find plenty of sulfur and wood, but nothing that looks like a match, let alone a fire. Last month shaped up like that when it came to another go-round with radiation and granite – this time concerning fabrication shops.

Let me illustrate what went on in the past 40 days or so. Then, I’ll let you sort it out.

For me, this started on July 6 when one of the many Web-search programs I use to troll the Internet popped up with an article by San Jose, Calf.-based industrial hygienist Linda Kincaid from the Examiner Website on June 26, noting that “nationwide warning was issued yesterday by the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD), cautioning granite fabricators about radiation exposure during granite fabrication.”

The article cited the problem with radioactive dust and possible levels in excess of that allowed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The result of research, the article stated, was the letter from the CRCPD, a Frankfort, Ky.-based independent non-profit association of state, federal and municipal regulators/officials.

A day later, as I started looking into this, a letter appeared from the Marble Institute of America to the CRCPD, disputing a report from Salt Lake City-based health physicist Dave Bernhardt (“Potential Occupational Exposure, Fabrication of Granite Counter Tops”) that the group sent to its members. The MIA offered its own report from Enviornmental Health & Engineering (EHE) of Needham, Mass. – the firm that produced the MIA-sponsored report earlier this year on radio and radiation with granite – questioning Bernhardt’s report.

The MIA requested, among other things, that the CRCPD contact MIA President Guido Gliori “to discuss the remedial steps” the MIA would request to correct the mistakes of Berhardt’s report, among other things. And, the July 10 deadline for a response passed without hearing from the CRCPD.

The story should shape up like one of those here-we-go-again bits concerning an overreaction on granite and radiation/radon fears. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more-complicated.

To begin with, the CRCPD didn’t send a health-advisory letter. What they sent, as an attachment to an email, was a draft of Bernhardt’s initial findings that he was going to use as part of a presentation of a work-in-progress at the annual meeting of the Health Physics Society (HPS) in Minneapolis last month. The email didn’t endorse any of the findings or associate it with a CRCPD position. (The MIA contends that the CRCPD didn’t include specific language noting the report wasn’t endorsed or sanctioned.)

The CRCPD email noted that Bernhardt’s findings were included as a “heads-up” that they’d be made public at the HPS meeting. At least two CRCPD members included their own comments discussing the findings in general, along with questions about the data in general.

Bernhardt had considered data provided by Kincaid as she measured dry fabrication by Oklahoma City fabricator Al Gerhart of three granites that his shop doesn’t routinely process. Bernhardt’s report noted the sampling was “performed primarily to assess the concern for silica exposure” but also included analysis on concerns of elevated concentration of uranium and thorium with some granite.

On July 13, Bernhardt, Gerhart and Kincaid presented their initial findings as “Implications of Granite Counter Top Construction and Uses” at the HPS event as one of 24 works in process. The presentation, done as a “poster paper” – the report is mounted on posterboards, a common practice for inspection and critiques, a common scholarly practice – concerned health risks for fabricators and consumers. (EHE also refuted these findings in a July 24 report provided to the CRCPD.)

Finally, on July 29, CRCPD Chairperson Adela Salame-Alfie sent an email update to her members, noting the Bernhardt review and the MIA contact. Salame-Alfie noted she contacted the MIA, explaining that the information went out to keep members informed and “make sure radiation programs were not blindsided by new information (potentially with high media interest).”  She also stated that new information would go out to members as it became available.

Now, try and fit all that together into a cohesive news article. Is it one of possibly dangers in granite fabrication, albeit based on working on selective stones with measurements refuted by the MIA’s scientific consultants, and solely with a method – dry – that is now far from everyday and universal in fabrication shops?

Or it is that the CRCPD jumped the gun by sending out the report without full vetting and not pasting disclaimers of endorsement, as the MIA contends? Or is it the CRCPD letting its members – the people most likely to be bombarded by the media – know about a research work-in-progress that could spawn another line of granite/radiation stories?

And, there’s one other nagging little bit. That CRCPD email of June 25 didn’t declare a health advisory, but there’s an indication that there’ll be a request for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, and part of the federal Center for Disease Control) “to perform a Health Hazard Evaluation of the granite countertop processing industry, for exposure to respirable dust, total dust, silica and ionizing radiation.”

In my news judgment, all of them had that consistency of stucco-patch that doesn’t quite set enough to fill the gaps. There may be something here, but it’s not quite ready for prime time.

In essence, it’s a whole lot of background that may or may not develop into a cohesive story. I’ll keep my eye on it. And, in the meantime, you can, too.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at Stone Business Online, where you can also find this blog at the Main Menu under the clever title of “Editor’s Blog.”

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