Montgomery County Council President Rose Crenca introduced legislation yesterday that would require every house sold in the county to be tested first for radon, a radioactive gas linked to lung cancer that has been called a significant environmental health hazard for Montgomery residents.

Crenca's bill, which would apply to all homes sold after June 1, 1988, also calls for county standards to define acceptable levels of indoor radon concentrations.

Crenca said she was acting in response to what she termed the "startling" findings this week of a county task force on radon. But county Environmental Protection Director John L. Menke said Crenca's suggestions go far beyond the task force's recommendations and, in some cases, contradict them.

Menke, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade Crenca not to introduce the bill, called the legislation premature and said it would pose serious cost and legal problems for the county. Other council members, while saying they will carefully consider the bill, expressed concern about panicking the public.

A task force appointed by the council and executive released a report Monday estimating that nearly one-third of county houses contain radon levels above federally recommended guidelines. County Executive Sidney Kramer endorsed the task force's recommendation that a county program be established to educate the public and collect data on the prevalence of radon in the county.

Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas caused by the natural breakdown of uranium deposits in the soil. Radon becomes a problem if it seeps into houses, generally via the basement, and builds to dangerous levels.

Among specific task force recommendations were that property owners be urged to test their buildings as a way to provide better data for the county and to see whether individual corrective measures should be taken.

Menke stressed, though, that such tests would be strictly voluntary and added that the problem with Crenca's bill is that "you can't live people's lives for them." He said that even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not been able to set enforceable standards on what constitutes dangerous levels of radon. He said much more research needs to be done before the government starts drafting bills.

The task force admitted that its data sample was small and possibly flawed, with about 3,500 records representing less than 1 percent of the total number of structures in the county.

"My feeling is we can't wait for this," Crenca countered. "To have this information {from the task force} and not act on it would be irresponsible."

Crenca, whose request for information about radon last year resulted in creation of the task force, said that she is willing to listen to the concerns of the executive branch but that she wants some action.

Officials stressed yesterday that although they are disturbed by the report's findings, steps can be taken in existing houses and those under construction to reduce exposure to radon. And, they said, the tests to detect radon are relatively inexpensive, ranging from $11 to $40.

Council member William E. Hanna Jr., challenging anyone to identify one person who has died from exposure to radon, called the task force report an overreaction. He called radon the latest fad in a long list of environmental health dangers about which officials have unnecessarily panicked the public.

In a sometimes passionate argument, he said there "is no way to protect ourselves from every risk" and chided society for worrying about radon "when there are kids dying, literally dying, of starvation in Africa."