SULFITE, a common preservative used in quantity food preparation, made news agsin at a recent press conference when a consumer group linked them with one death. Previously, no deaths had been associated with sulfites.

After eating a green chili burro, enchilada-style, in Arizona , last fall, 53-year-old Gideon Lawhon died. And at an April 5 press conference, Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said that government "delay and inaction in evaluating sulfiting agents"--substances that may have been used to preserve the lettuce in Lawhon's lunch--are responsible for the death.

The autopsy report does not link sulfites with Lawhon's death. Dr. Ronald Simon, an allergy specialist in La Jolla, Calif., has concluded, however, that "Mr. Lawhon's death was the result of a sulfite-sensitive reaction." Simon, who has studied sulfite sensitivity for several years, estimates that half a million asthmatics in America are sensitive to the compounds. In a letter to Jacobson, he said, "Mr. Lawhon's history of asthma and reaction in the restaurant breathing trouble and passing out prior to his death are quite compatible with a sulfite asthmatic reaction."

Sulfites, the fountain-of-youth compounds for tired lettuce and sliced apples, are used commonly to keep fresh produce looking that way. The Food and Drug Administration, after reviewing the scientific literature available on sulfites, proposed last summer that the compounds be reaffirmed as a substance that is "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS).

CSPI claims that the FDA overlooked research published in the last six years. In October, the group petitioned the department to "ban or severely restrict" the use of these sulfites, saying that this research proves the chemicals cause "severe adverse reactions" in sensitive individuals.

Bill Grigg, director of press relations for the FDA, compared the agency's slow reaction to sulfite warnings against its immediate response to the Tylenol crisis. "When somebody dies of cyanide," he explained, "you know they died of cyanide. When somebody who's allergic to a wide range of substances has a reaction while eating, you have a growing suspicion but nothing like a clear-cut cause and effect."

Until now, the FDA has only advised state health officials to require restaurants to post signs saying they use sulfites. But Bethesda resident Andrew Sackett said such signs would not have prevented his sulfite reaction at a Montgomery County pizza parlor last summer, "because I didn't know before the attack that I was sensitve to sulfiting agents." Grigg said that many members of the National Restaurant Association have chosen to remove sulfites from their products rather than post signs.

"We're not finished with sulfites, by any means," said Grigg. The health official advisory "was just a quick action that could be taken without any regulatory red tape. Our ultimate role in this area will be to limit sulfite use to areas in which they are necessary" and label it clearly when it is used in baked goods, wines and dried fruit where, according to Grigg, "if you eliminate sulfites, you eliminate products entirely."

Meanwhile, CSPI has become a clearinghouse for people who have suffered reactions to sulfites or know of possible deaths.