ALMOST THE first thing one notices about printmaker Tadeusz Lapinski is his hands. They are the means of his creativity, the instruments of his will. After decades of contact with metal, pigments and chemicals, the palms are thickened and calloused, the skin's defensive carapace.

That protective coating could not save him from an illness that almost killed him.

"My art is manual plate lithography, using a light gum etch introduced to a sensitized metal plate," Lapinski said recently. "I build my patterns with a very mild dose of phosphoric acid and gum and I worked this way for 25 years and was never sick."

By the time he joined the University of Maryland's art faculty in 1972, the Polish-born artist had acquired an international reputation as one of the principal experimenters in color lithography and a leader in radical techniques that were expanding the art far beyond traditional limits.

Unlike many printmakers who do not print their own lithographs, Lapinski has always needed to work as a craftsman as well as an artist so that his technical experiments can be placed at the service of his esthetic intuitions.So when he discovered benzene, then in use at the University of Maryland, Lapinski thought it must be a derivative of gasoline ("Benzina" is the general European term.) It was one more tool to be exploited for new possibilities.

Lapinski noted that the bottle had a warning label. Benzene required adequate ventilation, but that was not possible, since the printmaking studio was then housed in an old barracks, with one ineffective fan. He was prepared to be guided by smell, but noticed nothing unusual (benzene has a characteristic odor). He washed his hands frequently and thought no more about it.

A few years later, Lapinski began to experience nausea and headaches. Some of his students also complained. Then, one day in the spring of 1976, working a double shift in the studio, Lapinski began to feel drowsy and almost fainted.

"I went outside of the studio to take a breath of air and saw black spots in front of my eyes. I got into my car and drove straight to the doctor with my last strength, praying that I would get there before I collapsed. He took a blood sample and there was no blood in the test tube-only fluid."

Dr. Samuel Waxman, the hematologist who treated Lapinski in New York, will not categorically assert that benzene was responsible for the condition, because his patient was working with several other chemicals known to have deleterious effects. There is also a remote chance that his illness was caused by a virus. Dr. Waxman will say, however, that Lapinski's near-fatal blood disorder was "associated with exposure to an agent known to cause aplastic anemia."

Benzene is a hydrocarbon that has been in wide industrial use for about 150 years and whose carcinogenic effect has been known for 40 years. Cases of leukemia caused by exposure to benzene have been reported in medical literature since the 1930s, but only in the past five years or so has the substance become of interest to epidemiologists, because of its widespread use. Dr. Michael McCann, a biochemist at the nonprofit Art Hazards Information Center, recently checked with 21 stores in New York and found that 18 of them sold products, particularly paint and varnish removers, containing benzene.

"Benzene, which was widely used as a solvent until the last few years, is now known to be a cuase of leukemia," cautions a handbook published by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in August 1977, which goes on to warn that benzene and similarly toxic organic solvents should never be used by the lithographic printing industry, for which the handbook was written.

Benzene has been preferred over safer alternatives because, until recently, it was cheap, and it acts fast. Because of the threat posed by prolonged exposure to benzene, the Consumer Products Safety Commission is considering a ban on its use. However well a user may try to protect himself, McCann doubts whether there is any safe level of exposure.

Toluene (toluene diisocyanate, also known as T.D.I.) is a space-age chemical first used in the 1950s, and now found in numerous substances from home insulation to the upholstered padding in cars. According to a handbook on job hazards put out by the Department of Labor in 1975, toluene is known to irritate all living tissues, and workers who routinely handle the chemical should be heavily protected. Inhaling the vapors can lead to respiratory problems, including deep coughs and choking, and may cause headaches and nausea as well.

Sheila Isham, a Washington painter, said she began to suffer from dizziness and other accompanying symptoms after she started spraying her canvases with paint from cans containing toluene.

Anne Laddon, a silkscreen artist who works at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, uses lacquer stencils and has made routine use of toluene as a thinner to clean out her screens. She said, "Most artists don't get terribly ill as Lapinski did. We just have vague things wrong with us. In my case, I had stomachaces every day for four years and doctors could find nothing wrong with me. Finally, I got smart and realized that my ailment had to be related to the chemicals I was using."

Recently, Laddon had two miscarriages and wonders if these are related to her daily exposure to such chemicals. She is now taking doses of megavitamins under the supervision of a nutritionist-the first doctor, she says, who has helped her.

Lou Stovall, another well-known Washington silkscreen artist, thinks the whole problem is vastly overrated. Stovall said, "Artists talk so much. Everything becomes a cause before there is a problem. If you believed everything you heard, you'd be afraid to eat or drink or even stay alive."

He added, "I hope you aren't going to write something that is going harm the industry or we will lose products that are essential to our craft."

Similarly, Eve Wilen executive secretary of the Artists' Equity Committee in New York, said. "It seems totally unnecessary for anyone to have problems." In her opinion problems with toxic substances could all be traced back to a lack of information on the part of the user.

Lapinski contracted acute aplastic anemia-that is, an anemia caused by a toxic substances. His body's ability to produce bone marrow had been imperiled and, with it, the ability to produce red blood cells.

Conventional therapy involves keeping the patient alive with blood tranfusions in the hope that his bone marrow will begin to function of its own accord. If the patient lives for three months, he has a fighting chance.

Lapinski was given an emergency blood transfusion and rushed to Sibley Hospital, where bone marrow tests were taken and a diagnosis made. After a week he was transferred to the hematology division of Mount Sinai hospital in New York and admitted in critical condition. Blood transfusions were given every few days.

About 6 1/2 months after he had been hospitalized, Lapinski's body finally regained its ability to manufacture red blood cells. He was discharged, weak but on the road to recovery. His hospital bill was $100,000. His claim for workmen's compensation from the State of Maryland was granted in November.

Lapinski was never in pain, but was more than once on the point of death. His vision was so blurred that he could not read, write or even watch television. He could talk to his friends and students, and to printmaker friends in New York who, hearing of his pligh, took turns providing him with fresh tranfusions of their blood. He could also draw.

Tadeusz Lapinski's prints, which have won many international awards and are represented in art museum collections around the world, are abstract compositions which set up extraordinarily dreamlike reverberations in the mind, images with an elegant clarity of vision.

As he hovered between life and death, Lapinski began to draw and his drawings took a markedly different aspect. Instead of serenity and simplicity, the drawings became patterned abstractions inside a tightly enclosing line-almost obsessively concerned with detail. His new work seemed to be demonstrating the strength of a psyche fighting for its life, and he believes that the drawings kept him alive. Dr. Waxman commented: "How he survived this illness, I'll never know. Nine out of 10 die from it. I can only conclude that his art carried him through."

Jacob Kainen, the dean of Washington printmakers, has written that Lapinski's compositions give one the "feeling of a mechanized world in which vulnerable organisms drift," but Lapinski learned how to survive at an early age. As a teenager growing up in Warsaw during World War II, he was trained in sabotage, took part in the destruction of German cars and weapons, and acted as a scout. More than once, he was caught and beaten by the Germans.

In 1944 during the Warsaw uprising, when the Germans leveled 95 percent of the city and killed thousands of civilians, Lapinski was wounded with shrapnel in his body and a bullet in his leg. He was taken first to a hospital and then a concentration camp, but he and some friends made their escape three days later. In the attempt, his friend was badly wounded and Lapinski collapsed while trying to carry him to safety. Lapinski was covered with blood and given up for dead by the Germans, but rescued by Polish peasants and nursed back to health. He was 16 years old.

Since his illness, Lapinski has taken extraordinary precautions with his health and is back at work on his printmaking. He is teaching again at the University of Maryland whose art department is now housed in a new building, but is barred from entering the studio. His illness has raised doubts about the ventilation system in the new printmaking studio, considered adequate when the plans were on the drawing board, and the university is now revamping its system accordingly. And Lapinski has learned recently that his application for a full professorship has been turned down.

David C. Driskell, new chairman of the art department, who says he has inherited a lot of the problems, added that only recently has the university become aware of the dangers posed by such toxic chemicals. "For us, unfortunatley, it took the threat to Tadeusz's health," he said. Driskell has banned the use of products containing benzene.

Driskell maintained that the present ventilation system is perfectly adequate for most printmaking processes. Lapinski disagrees.

The case of Tadeusz Alpinski is a particularly dramatic example of a problem whose existence has only recently been recognized by artists. In microcosm, it is one which is faced by society at large, as governmental agencies weigh the benefits of proliferating chemical compounds against their risks to the public health.

According to the Society for Occupational and Environmental Health, which held a conference here recently on thequestion of artists' safety, there are two issues: the lack of label adequately spelling out the dangers of toxic substances, along with the belief that some are too dangerous to be used at all; and the necessity for greater public awareness. Artists generally are not teaching their students about the dangers because most of them don't know what they are.

Lapinski wonders if there is a connection between his recent illness and the fact that his application for a full professorship has been denied.

Lapinski wonders if there is a connection between his recent illness and the fact that his application for a full professorship has been denied.

Asked to comment, Driskell said, "It would be very difficult for me to say since the actions of the university policy committee are confidental.

"However, I will say this: Tadeusz's health concerns all of us. One would want to consider whether he would be able to take on a full teaching load." Driskell added that there was no question about Lapinski's qualifications for the position. There were, simply, "other circumstances." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, A print and the printmaker, Tadeusz Lapinski: He's very careful now. Photos by Harry Naltchayan-The Washington Post