A Virginia state task force concluded this week that testing of homes for lethal radon should not be required before the completion of real estate transactions even though radon contamination presents an "increased risk" to residents in numerous pockets throughout the state.

The study, mandated earlier this year by the Virginia General Assembly, acknowledged that the presence of radon poses a "substantial" health hazard to some Virginia residents and encouraged the public to better educate itself on the dangers of the cancer-causing gas. But it strongly opposed establishment of a mandatory statewide program of testing houses prior to real estate settlements, as some radon-testing companies and health officials have urged.

The task force, which made nine recommendations concerning radon in its report to the 1988 Virginia House of Delegates, concluded that mandatory testing as part of real estate sales would increase home prices and be open to tampering by home sellers.

"We were concerned about all homes, not just homes in the process of being bought or sold," said Dr. Carl Armstrong, director of the health hazards control division at the Virginia Department of Health and the vice chairman of the eight-member task force. "We realize that there may be economic reasons for requiring {mandatory} testing. But our focus is to protect public health, not protecting investments."

Armstrong said the state's real estate and home building industries, two influential lobbying groups that typically oppose new regulations on the home selling market, had "no effect" on the task force's rejection of the idea. The two industries did not voice opposition to the testing idea, he said.

The task force, composed of state health and housing officials, also rejected calls for regulation of companies that perform radon testing -- an industry that has expanded dramatically since radon has come into the public spotlight in the last few years. The study said, however, that "there is little evidence that inferior quality testing or mitigation services is a problem of such magnitude that licensing is warranted."

Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is a growing health concern in many portions of the United States, is considered to be the major cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the inert gas, which seeps into homes through cracks or holes in the foundation, is responsible for as many as 20,000 lung cancer deaths yearly in the United States.

Radon, produced by the breakdown of uranium in the soil, is odorless, tasteless and colorless. Last year, the EPA found that one in eight American homes has radon levels equal to the danger of smoking half a pack of cigarettes daily.

Douglas Mose, a geology professor at George Mason University who reviewed the report at the request of The Washington Post, said: "The report adequately describes what is being done {to address the radon problem}, but it doesn't go far enough in recommending what ought to be done."

Mose has been conducting his own radon study of more than 1,500 homes in Fairfax and Montgomery counties during the past year. He has found radon levels exceeding the EPA safety limit in up to half of the homes monitored, suggesting the presence of a high level of radon in certain districts in the metropolitan area.

Mose said that while he was "generally pleased" with the study, "it should have recommended that the {state} health department find the funds to research the radon problem. I wish they were more aggressive in seeking funding" to perform a statewide radon examination.

As for mandatory testing, Mose said he has "mixed feelings" about increased government regulation. "But, I do feel we should {regulate} air quality the same way we do water quality," he said.

Mose also rejected the report's contention that a state-imposed radon testing program would increase home prices significantly. The radon monitoring, he explained, can be done for less than $50 per test.

Task force members urged Virginia residents, particularly those living where high radon levels have been found, to educate themselves. Because of the state's geology, high radon levels can be found in numerous pockets throughout Virginia.

Task force members also said most homeowners, except for those in the Tidewater area near Norfolk, should have their homes tested for radon contamination. Because of the rock formation in the Tidewater area, it is not susceptible to radon problems.

"The most important radon control measure is a well-educated public," said Armstrong. "It's just not reasonable to expect {the} government to fix the problem or be able to detect a problem in everyone's home."

{For more information on radon, Virginia residents can call the state's bureau of radiological health toll-free at 1-800-468-0138.}