Twenty years ago, Rachel Carson warned the world of the dangers of man-made pollution in her book Silent Spring. Her primary target, the pesticide DDT, was eventually banned in the United States, but Lewis Regenstein, a former CIA employe-turned-conservationist, fears Carson's overall message was lost.

"I think that toxic pollution is the major environmental issue of the '80s," says Regenstein, who adds that the Reagan administration's apparent reluctance to enforce tough environmental laws will haunt future generations.

Regenstein, 39, is vice president of the Washington-based Fund for Animals, a position he took after quitting a CIA job that involved resettling defectors from communist countries and collecting information from Americans who traveled abroad. Regenstein began following Capitol Hill testimony and reading studies that pointed to a dramatic increase in toxic pollution. Now he's touring the country to promote his newly published book on the subject, America the Poisoned.

"When I decided to write the book, I picked up Silent Spring, and almost everything Carson predicted and warned about not only has come true, it's much worse. She was probably too conservative.

"We were just detecting what appeared to be a rise in the cancer rate," says Regenstein. "Now it's an epidemic. One out of every four Americans living today will get cancer. Last year 420,000 people died from it, more than the number of Americans who died in the battles of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam combined. Cigarette smoking accounted for about a third of those deaths. The chemical industry says the higher figures are because people are living longer. Nonsense. Cancer is the leading cause of death for women between 30 and 40 and for children 1 through 10. With cancer having a latency period of 10 or 20 or 30 years, it's obvious that kids are being exposed to some cancer-causing substance while they're still in the womb or as infants."

Regenstein cites a dismal litany of man's inability to stop harming himself: failure to dispose properly of most chemical waste, unusually high concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals in mothers' milk, imbalance of the food chain thanks to indiscriminate use of pesticides, and a high price tag should we decide to revise the present destructive course.

"My wife and my publisher both said, 'All this is so depressing, we've got to give people hope.' So for each problem, I talk about a solution that is reasonable, effective and often would be a cheaper course of action than not doing it. People through their life styles--by minimizing consumption of high-fat products--can minimize their contact with poisons. And if the public demands the government enforce the laws on the books, we can save our country."