Douglas Costle, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said yesterday that federal pollution controls don't cost the country as much as dirty water and dirty air.

Costle's remarks before a national group of business, labor and education leaders came one week after Robert Strauss, President Carter's inflation counsel, said environmental regulations are targets in the administration's battle to reduce inflation.

Easing some of those regulations and other regulatory costs would help the administration persuade business leaders to hold down prices, Strauss said.

Costle implied yesterday that Strauss is misguided. "EPA's programs do contribute modestly to inflation," but the benfits of those programs far exceed the costs, he said.

At the moment, standard measures such as the consumer price index, used to measure changes in retail prices, are the only tools available to guage inflation, Costle said. But a tool like the CPI is inadequate in measuring cost/benefit ratios, he said.

"The CPI ignores improvements to public health, reduced property damage, increased crop yields, et cetera, that result from pollution control spending," Costle said. "If the CPI were adjusted for these improved outputs, then pollution control spending would not appear inflationary, as long as the benefits exceed the costs . . ." Costle said.

EPA programs presently increase retail prices by about four-tenths percent annually, Costle said. "Even by standard economic measures, any conceivable modification of current regulations would not make a dent in the CPI," he said.

Costle conceded that there are "no exact estimates in dollar terms" of the benefits of environmental programs. "Yet more Americans believe that such benefits are real, and they are demanding a clean and health environment," he said.

Economic analyses are being developed to detail the monetary benefits of a healthy enviornment, said Costle. But until they come about, Americans must keep in mind that "pollstants can be dangerous . . . to health," he told the delegates to the National Planning and Regulatory Reform meeting of The Conference Board.

He added: "We don't know yet what the effects will be in people exposed over most of their lives to toxic chemicals . . . [but] we must acknowledge the fact that we've launched a chemical revolution in this country in the last 25 years - and, in truth, we don't know yet what the sure consequences of that revolution are going to be."

Costle, however, apparently was aware that the thrust of Strauss' criticisms was aimed at the way many EPA programs are administered. He said the agency already has embarked on a series of "reforms" that, among other things, will "encourage the maximum possible amount of innovation by industry in solving pollution problems."