Is radon a problem in Arlington?

Most experts don't think so, but a county official said this week that this doesn't necessarily mean the issue should be forgotten.

"Based on what we know right now, we don't have a major problem," said County Board Chairman Albert C. Eisenberg. "But I'm not comfortable in saying there's nothing more for the county to do."

Eisenberg said he will ask County Manager Anton S. Gardner for a review of the issue and an assessment of whether the county should conduct its own tests.

Fairfax and Montgomery counties have done extensive surveys recently on whether homes in their areas have dangerous levels of radon. The Fairfax survey found that one-third of the homes studied exceeded federal minimum safety levels.

Radon is an odorless, colorless gas that can seep into homes through cracks in walls or foundations and can build up to dangerous levels, particularly in modern, airtight houses. The Environmental Protection Agency believes radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers.

County health officials say radon should not be as great a cause for concern in Arlington as it is in nearby jurisdictions. Radon poses the greatest risk in areas on top of Triassic geologic formations, which bypass Arlington, said Glen M. Rutherford, chief of environmental health for Arlington. The Triassic formations contain uranium and produce radon as a byproduct.

The Triassic belt "runs from Pennsylvania through Maryland and cuts across Virginia," Rutherford said. "By and large it misses Arlington."

A report by the Virginia Department of Health in June "turned up no high levels of radon in Arlington," Rutherford said. "It did not show a need for widespread testing throughout the county."

The state survey sampled 16 Arlington houses. One was found to have at least four picocuries per liter, the minimum safety level at which the EPA suggests homeowners act to cut radon levels.

While the survey was generally reassuring, Eisenberg said he wonders whether the county should do a broader survey. "We don't want to alarm anyone but at the same time we don't want to be in a position where the information we should provide to people is not there."

Arlington's Energy Conservaton Advisory Committee has suggested that county buildings be tested for radon as part of routine energy audits or as part of a planned examination for asbestos. School buildings should be checked as part of any renovation program, the committee said.

Radon "seems to be showing up in other parts of the {Washington} area, more than people have expected," said Louise Chestnut, a member of the advisory committee. "It would be useful for us to find out more than we know." The committee plans to distribute literature on radon at this weekend's Arlington County Fair.

Eisenberg said there are plans to test for radon as part of the asbestos survey of county buildings, but a contractual dispute has delayed the radon portion of the study.

In any case, Eisenberg said he does not believe the county will be able to conduct tests for every homeowner who requests one, though the county may consider helping low-income residents if radon is found to be a problem.

Environmental health chief Rutherford said residents who are worried about radon should have their homes tested. "I don't think there's much of a problem . . . but people are concerned and rightfully so," he said. Test kits cost around $25 and his office will provide a list of firms that produce the kits, he said.