Countertop Materials Hazard Spectrum

Below is a listing of countertop materials, which HBN has ranked on a simplified spectrum. Products appearing green are better options than those that appear red, and products that appear yellow contain more toxic substances than those at the top, but are better choices than those at the bottom.In addition to the information below, consider accessory products that may be required by your countertop choice. Adhesives, sealants, or mortar and grout all have their own hazards and should be factored into product selection.

While antimicrobial countertops are on the market, there remains no evidence that these additives protect human health, and credible organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Food and Drug Administration dissuade even hospitals from using products treated with antimicrobials. Healthy Building Network advises that products advertised as antimicrobial be avoided whenever possible.

Ceramic tiles made without toxic glazes can be relatively low-impact materials for a countertop installation. Tiles made in the USA are typically free of lead compounds in their glazes. Look for tile product literature that identifies where they’ve been made, and what they are made of, including frits, glazes, and pigments. Unglazed tiles are most preferred.

Avoid tiles with non-specific post-consumer recycled content. These contents may be old cathode ray tubes (CRTs) from TV sets and computer monitors. They contain high concentrations of lead. Tiles with CRT content are sometimes called CRT tiles.

For more information, read Made in the USA: A Healthy Choice for Ceramic Tiles

Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) or acrylic solid surface countertops are countertops made from a slab plastic.  The countertops can be cut or formed into many different shapes and layouts, and if necessary, joined with a special adhesive to achieve a "seamless" look.

Because PMMA countertops are nonporous, they are stain-resistant and do not require sealing.

However, manufacture of PMMA plastic releases significant amounts of methyl methacrylate into the environment, which can be toxic to the reproductive system, and lead to the onset of asthma.

Engineered stone is made by combining granules of particulates - often quartz-containing rocks and minerals, but also glass, seashells, or other materials - with a polyester resin, and pressing the mixture into a slab under high heat and in a vacuum.  

Similar to engineered stone, cultured marble is made from ground limestone and a polyester resin, then cast into a mold of the desired shape. Pigments are swirled into the resin when it is wet to simulate the look of natural marble.  

The polyester resins used to make both types of composite can contain trace amounts of cobalt, which is a carcinogen, and can harm several systems in the body.  Additionally, manufacture of polyester resins releases significant amounts of styrene, which is a carcinogen and asthmagen, into the environment.

However, whereas quarried stone contains pores, engineered stone and cultured marble are non-porous so resist staining without requiring a sealant.

Laminates are a composite product made from layers of papers impregnated with various formaldehyde-based resins, pressed together into a rigid sheet.  Because it has no structural support, the sheet then needs to be adhered to a substrate - particle board, medium density fiberboard, etc. - to create the countertop surface.

These substrates commonly rely on formaldehyde-based binders that release formaldehyde (a carcinogen and asthmagen) into interior spaces over time.  If possible, specify laminate countertops with substrates made with an NAUF (no added urea formaldehyde), or even better, an NAF (no added formaldehyde) binder.

Because the adhesive used to attach the laminate to the substrate can contain hazardous solvents, it is best to specify that P-Lam products be manufactured in the factory rather than on-site to prevent these solvents from entering the home.

Solid granite is a natural stone that has been polished to a smooth surface. Granite and other natural stones do not carry any hazards, but may contain trace radioactive elements (which have an associated cancer hazard) depending on the location from which it was quarried.

The primary health hazard associated with granite and natural stone countertops is the sealant they typically require.  Granite and other stone countertops may be sealed during their manufacture, or after installation, and many manufacturers suggest that this sealant be re-applied periodically over the life of the countertop.  

These sealant products are commonly based on fluoropolymer chemistry. Long and short chain perfluorinated alkyl compounds (PFAS), which are persistent and bioaccumulate in the environment, and have reproductive and developmental hazards, are the basis of this chemistry and are present as residuals in the sealant products.

If granite or other natural stone is necessary for a building project, be sure to talk to suppliers about which stone options may require sealing less frequently because they are exceptionally dense, or have fewer pores.

While US manufacturers have eliminated toxic lead compounds from ceramic tile glazes, overseas manufacturers continue to use them. Eighty percent of tiles sold in the US are imported, mainly from Europe and Asia, where leaded glazing remains common. Unless manufacturers specifically state otherwise, you should assume that glazed tiles not made in the USA contain lead (a PBT with cancer, developmental, and reproductive hazards). In addition, tiles with post-consumer recycled content from cathode ray tubes (CRTs), sometimes called CRT tiles, also contain lead from this recycled material.

When the location of manufacture can not be determined, the safest tile choices are unglazed tiles, or glazed tiles that are rated high for traffic abrasion (an abrasion resistance rating of IV or V according to ASTM C1027/ANSI A137.1, sometimes referred to as a PEI rating).  The glazes of these tiles are less likely to wear down over time and introduce any lead that might be present into the living space.

For more information, read Made in the USA: A Healthy Choice for Ceramic Tiles

See also: Composite Woods / Substrates Hazard Spectrum

Last updated: April 25, 2018

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