The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday adopted a controversial new standard for controlling lead in the air that could cost the lead and copper smelting industry as much as $650 million by 1982.

But at the same time, EPA admistrator Douglas Costle said the tough new rule might be altered on a case-by-case basis because "the fact of the matter is, we are told, the smelting industry is struggling for economic survival.

The existing lead standards call for an average of two to four micrograms allowed per cubic meter of air. High lead content in air can do damage to human nervous and blood-forming systems.

In another action, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration imposed tough limits on worker exposure to acrylonitrile, a chemical widely used in fibers for clothing, carpeting, upholstery and other fabrics.

OSHA limited exposure to the chemical - which has been found to pose a cancer risk to humans - to an average of two parts per million parts of air during an eight-hour period, and no more that 10 parts per million in any 15-minute period.

Costle called the new EPA lead standfard, which allows a maximum of 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air "a major advance in reducing the problem of lead in the urban enviroment." He said it could cost the industry as much as $650 million.

But the industry saw the new standard in a different light.

The Lead Industries Association, Inc., called the new ambiant air standard - the first such standard announced by the EPA since 1971 - "totally unnecessry from a health point-of-view and ruinous for the industry."

LIA spokesman Dr. Jerome F. Cole said the 1.5 microgram standard "is based on a faulty interpretation of the scientific facts concerning lead and is at least three times more stringment that it needs to be to protect human health."

LIA has proposed a 5 microgram standard which Cole said "would provide full health protection plus an ample margin of safety and , at the same time, permit continued smelting of lead in the United States.

But Costle said the tougher, standard was needed because "we are finding that even low levels of lead have more harmful and persistent effects than previously understood."

"Under the Clean Air Act," Costle said, "States will develop plans to achieve this standard which we have determined is adequate to protect the health of the most sensitive population - in this case young children."

Costle said young children are more sensitive to the effects of lead in the air because of their rapid growth, and the problem is in two stages.

The urban dweller is usually faced with lead entering the air predominantly from automobile emissions, which account for 90 percent of total air lead emmissions.

The second part of the problem, he said are the approximately 70 primary lead, primary copper and secondary lead smelters, which are located predominantly in sparsely populated areas.

EPA has been "successfully reducing lead levels in urban children," through its program of phasing out leaded gasoline in autos," Costle said.

But even Costle admits that the smelter situation is much more complicated.

"Our preliminary assessments indicate that some non-ferrous smelters may not be able to technicaly or economically achieve the standard. But our information on how bad the environmental problem is and how much it will cost to control these sources adequately is not good enough," Costle said.

"During the next six to nine months, we will work closely with the states and the affeceed industry to develop a plant-by-plant analysis of how serious the problems are, and what would be a reasonable aompliance program for each smelter," Costle added. "Nobody wants any plants to have to go out of business."