As scientists debate how to determine if substances cause cancer, the Consumer Product Safety Commission staff has decided it should not wait, and instead should develop a safety-first policy now.

In a briefing before all commission yesterday, CPSC staff members recommended that a "safe rather than sorry" policy dictate commission actions concerning carcinogens, cancer-causing substances.

"The public health and safety is best served by banning from consumer products substances presenting a potential carcinogenic hazard," a staff report stated. "Only where persuasive evidence exists that a ban on the substance will impose major social and economic costs or other hardships will less strigent action be considered."

The staff proposed guidelines for dealing with carcinogens. The substances could fall into any of three categories, "strong evidence of carcinogenicity," "highly suggestive of carcinogenicity," and "no appreciable suspicion" of carcinogenicity.

The CPSC encountered major problems recently when it debated the ban on Tris, a fire retardant used in children's sleepwear. The staff report delivered yesterday is designed to help eliminate continuing arguments over what is a permissable level of a carcinogen in a given consumer product.

CPSC Commisioner Barbara Franklin has criticized the lack of a policy coordination actions of the federal agencies that must deal with carcinogens.

In a telephone interview after the staff presentation, Franklin said the plan would allow the CPSC some flexibility, but help to define needed action in the case of questionable cacrinogens.