EVERY DAY AN untold number of the 56 million Americans working with crafts materials expose themselves to potentially debilitating health hazards that are completely uncontrolled.

In late September of 1975, workers at a small plant in New Mexico, making pieces of Indian-style jewelry, began experiencing fatigue, nasal congestion, coughing and chest pains. Coincidentally, one of the workers read about the dangers of cadmium in silver solder-the same solder the workers used to make jewelry.

The workers contacted the local Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) office. OSHA found levels of cadmium in the air of the plant above recommended thresholds, but because the agency was unfamiliar with the effects of cadmium poisoning, it called in the U.S. Center for Disease Control. The CDC, after examining the workers, said Philip J. Landrigan, chief of special studies in Atlanta, found "elevated levels of cadmium" in both the blood and urine of 11 of them.

The workers have since filed suit against the manufacturer, says their attorney, Stephen F. Lawless of Albuquerque, claiming $1 million in damages. Because they no longer work with the material and the symptons disappeared, however, they have been unable to claim disability and workman's compensation, Lawless said. But a specialist in occupational medicine and epidemiology, and consultant to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Hector P. Blejer, says such poisoning can cause bronchial pneumonia, pulmonary edema, permanent scarring of the lungs and, in some cases, death.

"What could happen to these people in the long term," said Blejer, who reviewed the case, "it is not really known."

The CDC estimates there are 10,000 jewelers in New Mexico alone.

A lack of knowledge about, and control over, hazards in arts and crafts appears to stretch across the length and breadth of the land, into universities, high schools, craft workshops and small, out-of-the-way cottage industries. While some craftsmen and educational institutions are acutely aware of potential dangers, and have taken measures to avoid them, many others ignore hazards. Other dangers, scientists, medical authorities and craftsmen are only beginning to discover.

A recent study commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts indicates there are at least 375,000 professional craftsmen in the United States, up 25,000 from previous estimates. A 1975 Harris poll showed more than 56 million Americans are somehow involved in craftwork, either as professionals or occasional hobbyists.

The hazards are many and involve nearly every area of crafts work. They range from outright poisons, such as lead and cadmium, to known carcinogens such as benzene and asbestos, to allergy-causing chemicals, such as fiber-reactive dyes, to substances whose possible dangers are still a mystery.

Most go virtually unregulated by the federal government because the crafts industry, like a lost stepchild, fits into nobody's jurisdiction.

A few case histories:

Nancy Wells, a 44-year-old former fiber artist and instructor at the Henry Street Settlement Visual Arts Department in New York City, gave up batiking in 1974 because of allergies she believes she developed using fiber-reactive dyes.

"Prior to that time, I had never been allergic to anything, never been sick. As time went on, I started developing a reaction to the dyes. It only happened when I was working with the dyes. My throat closed up. My voice went down several registers. My face started getting very swollen. My eyes started jumping around. And I started getting chest pains.

"At that point I was doing very well with the batik. But I had to face the fact that if I kept it up, I would just kill myself, I decided the reaction was so bad I had to get out of batik altogether."

Nancy Wells is now a printmaker.

At a national conference held in Washington last October on the subject of arts-crafts hazards, Anne Laddon, a silk-screen artist, related her symptoms after prolonged use of lacquer thinners. "What really started me looking into these things thoroughly were my own personal health problems. I bought my gas mask after I had headaches and nausea, which followed after using the lacquer thinner and the screen wash. I thought that the gas mark would protect me from those strong fumes, but I didn't think about using the gas mask all the time for everything.

"Then, about four years ago, I began to experience a chronic stomach and digestive problem and later, last year, had a miscarriage. I really put none of this together with my silkscreening, because it was sort of a chronic problem. It wasn't overt. It didn't happen right afterward."

Robert G. Feldman, head of the neurology department at Boston University, which is investigating sources of lead poisoning, and its diagnosis and cures, cites the case of a 36-year-old woman, a stained-glass maker. She had nausea, dizziness, numbness, weakening of her limbs. A physician performed upper gastro-intestinal studies and treated her for anemia. But then she experienced a personality change and the doctor sent her to a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist asked whether her symptoms might be related to her use of lead in making stained glass. Tests for lead poisoning later showed she had a lead level in her blood of 58 micrograms per hundred, when "normal" is below 40, Feldman said. Another blood test showed her irregularities were three times above normal.

After treatment for lead poisoning, Feldmand said, the woman washed out 2,100 milligrams of lead in her urine. Lead in her blood diminished to a safe level.

There are other reports of craftsmen who used lead, and their children, who suffered irreparable brain damage. Illinois potter Harvey Mueller developed leukemia. His clay was contaminated with arsenic.

Then there is the oft-cited case of Tadeusz Lapinski, an internationally renowned lithographer and instructor at the University of Maryland, who managed amazingly to escape death from aplastic anemia. Lapinski was using benzene, a carcinogen that effects the bone marrow, in his work at the university.When he finally fell ill and went to the hospital for treatment, he was found to be virtually without red blood cells.He spent six months recovering in the hospital after receiving massive blood transfusions.

On April 5, the Consumer Product Safely Commission (CPSC) deferred for further study a petition from a number of private arts/crafts and occupational health organizations to ban the use of benzidine-derived dyes. NIOSH has found 15 benzidine-derived consumer dyes. A report resulting from a joint National Cancer Institute (NIC)-NIOSH study was presented to the commission. It found that "based on the data from the short-term study, NCI scientists believe a cancer-causing potential exists upon exposure to th benizdine-derived dyes . . . Cancerous and pre-cancerous liver conditions were found in rats," the report said, "similar to the damage produced by known liver carcinogens." The dyes, it said, should be treated "as if they were human carcinogens."

Michael McCann, an industrial hygienist and president of the New York-based Center for Occupational Hazards, Inc., one of the groups that presented the petition, believes the commission's deferral underscores a lack of government action regarding crafts hazards. The petition was originally presented Oct. 18, 1978. Not only has the CPSC declined to act upon it, the 120-day period in which the commission is normally required to act has long since expired.

But that is just one of numerous government-related problems spokesmen for crafts safety face. The thousands of self-employed craftsmen and public school teachers of crafts, and their students, are outside the purview of OSHA, the federal watchdog for occupational health. At the October conference John Froines, director of OSHA's office of toxic substances, said he realized the agency had not considered artists when OSHA wrote its standards, even though many artists are affected by them.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates products as they apply to food use, such as tableware, but not those produced by individual craftsmen who yearly travel around the country selling their wares at craft fairs. Said an FDA spokeman: "Our prime concern are those things that are industrially prepared and involved in interstate commerce."

The FDA recently initiated voluntary standards in industry after it found some products using ceramic glazes leaked lead. Feldman is concerned for both the safety of persons who make crafts articles and for those who buy them. He believes some products similar to those considered by the FDA are sold on the crafts market. Pottery cups, dishes, other household items with lead glazes and stained-glass jewelry made with lead may be leaking lead. Some pottery imported from other countries has been found to have a high lead content. Acid foods left in such containers can leach the lead into the food.

And there are other problems. Craftsmen use materials manufactured primarily for use by mass production companies. Fabric dyes, solders, glaze chemicals and the like are widely used in the million-dollar industries that produce general consumer goods. Craftsmen need the same materials for their work, yet there is no real outlet aimed at them because they buy in relatively small quantities and represent but a tiny fraction of the total market.

Consequently, they must buy many materials through local distributors who, after receiving them in bulk from the manufacturers, repackage them in smaller amounts. There is no control over how they repackage them, or how they label them. Many labels warning industry of hazardous substances and stating safe methods for using them are conspicuously missing by the time these materials filter down to craftmen and hobbyists.

"There is a question," says McCann, "of inadequate or non-existent labeling." He lists asbestos, lead, uranium oxide, benzidine type dyes, cadmium compounds and materials containing silica among the many that the are hazardous yet sold without warning labels.

Nancy Wells says she never knew of the potential hazards of fiber-reactive dyes when she used them, even after writing the manufacturer. And she used them liberally in her classes with children. on Goodman, a fiber artist here in Washington and an instructor at Glen Echo Park, says, "There are no exclusive dealerships. You can repackage it (the dye) yourself with or without a label, any way you want."

Robert G. Stetson, industry manager at ICI United States Inc. in Wilmington, Del., which makes Procion fiber-reactive dyes, said, "All of our distributors know as much as we do about the performance and possible hazards of reactive dyes. What they do with it, I can't control. We manufacture thousands of tons (of dyes) in this country and we've never had a problem. What we cannot do is control stupidity."

Stetson concedes, however, that even though he has been in the business for 30 years and "up to my armpits in the stuff for 20 of them," without illl effects, there have been cases in industry of allergies linked to fiber-reactive dyes. The company, as a result of two known cases, Stetson says, has been working to eliminate the dyes' propensity to dust.

The number of fiber craftsmen who are aware of the problem, or Goodman's method of mixing dye chemicals only in closed containers, remain unknown.

There are still other problems. Many craftsmen who are aware of potential hazards choose to ignore them. Instructors who are not concerned further risk exposing their students.

Stanley Lechtzin, one of the country's foremost goldsmiths, is an instructor at Temple University and oversees health and safety in the University's arts/crafts department. Many metalsmiths, Lechtzin says, are still using asbestos in their work even though the material can cause cancer and is, he says, "totally unnecessary." Potters are careless with the use of potentially hazardous silica, he says, often failing to institute proper cleanup procedures in their classes. Further, there is a gray area in which teachers and independent craftsmen may be working unaware of potential health threats.

"I am aware of the problems because I have a great interest in knowing about them," said Lechtzin."But many others are not."

Information about hazardous substances often is not widely circulated. Lechtzin says he relies on obscure medical and public health publications for much of his knowledge. Sometimes information appears only after industrial users encounter problems. After there are still dozens of materials known to be dangerous that remain in wide use simply because little has gone wrong-yet.

Goodman, who began using the Procion dyes nearly 15 years ago and who has stayed in close touch with ICI to insure his methods of using them are safe, says, "All I know is that some ple can develop allergies to them. But as far as long-range reactions, nobody reallys knows. They haven't been used long enough of widely enough for anyone to know."

So it is recognized that many craftsmen scoff at hazards, real or imagined, because they have never fallen ill themselves. "Craftsmen do not like all these apocalyptic reports," says Feldman. Others fear regulations might eliminate many of the raw materials they consider necessary to their trade.

Furthermore, authorities say most physicians are not trained to recognize the effects of chemical hazards. Time and again craftsmen have developed symptoms related to materials used in their work and have been treated for totally unrelated ailments.

And there are questions of just how to use materials safely. One of the most important safety measures is proper ventilation. But what does proper ventilation mean? McCann believes many artists and craftsmen regard an open window as good ventilation.

"It could mean anything," said Lechtzin. "I've talked to some people who think they're safe because they work outside or in the garage. Where do you put a fan? Do you place it to draw the stuff up? Or do you place it to draw the stuff down? Some materials are not lighter than air, so you just create another hazard if you force them into the air."

Some believe the solution is a joint government effort between OSHA and CPSC. If and when that will happen is uncertain. In the meantime, craftsmen will continue to be among the 4,000 persons who yearly ask McCann and his group for more information about health hazards. Hazardous Materials

These are the substances, as published by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), regarded as "hazards of arts and crafts." CERAMICS: asbestos, silica, glaza components (lead, barium, lithium), colorants (copper manganese, nickel, chromates, cadmium antimony, uranium), kiln gases (sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, flourine, chlorine, nitrogen oxides). DYEING: benizdine-type dyes, fiber-reactive dyes, azoic dyes, acids (sulfuric, oxalic, acetic), alkalies (sodium carbonate, ammonia), dichromates, copper sulfate, sodium hydro-sulfite, wax fumes. FIBER ARTS: anthrax, cotton, flax dust, molds. JEWELRY: bone and shell dust, cadmium fumes, flouride fluxes, silica, asbestos, hydrogen cyanide. METAL SCULPTURE: metal fumes (lead, zinc, copper, chromium, nickel, etc.), silica, asbestos, infrared radiation, nitric and sulfuric acids, nitrogen oxides. PLASTIC SCULPTURE: styrene, methyl methacrylate, diisocyanates, formaldehyde, organic peroxides, aliphatic amines, solvents (acetone,methylene chloride, ethylene dichloride, lacquer thinner, etc.), carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, asbestos, silica, fiber-glass. STAINED GLASS: lead, zinc chloride flux, copper sulfate, selenium dioxide, antimony sulfide, hydrofluoric acid, silver nitrate. WOODWORKING: solvents (benzene, methyl alcohol, methylene chloride, toluene, turpentine, mineral spirits), wood dust, formaldehyde, epoxy resins. CAPTION: Picture, no caption