A well-known environmental health specialist strongly suggested in testimony here today that the cause of the excessive cancer death rate in the Little Elk Valley may have been paper mills that once operated there rather than the Galaxy Chemical Co., which started operations in 1961.

In any case, Dr. William P. Radford testified, it is virtually impossible that Galaxy, which occupied the site of an old paper mill in the northeastern Maryland valley, could have been responsible for the area's cancer deaths in the last decade.

The Galaxy firm and its president, Paul J. Mraz, are in Circuit Court here seeking to recover $2.1 million from a Cecil County physician who, they claim, defamed the firm by falsely linking its emissions tocancer cases in the Little Elk Valley.

"My opinion is that Galaxy's effluents and any discharges that may have entered the air (from the plant) would not have accounted for any of these cancers," said Radford, an environmental epidemlologist at the University of Pittsburgh and a former medical professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The cancer death rate studies written by the defendant in this suit, Dr. Pietro U. Capurro, were also "irresponsible and worthless," Radford added.

Capurro, he said, had not sufficiently taken into account the possibility that other cancer-causing agenis may have played a role in the dozen-or-so cancer deaths in the valley since the mid-1960s.

Radford added that Capurro's studies ignored the fact that most of the cancers that killed valley residents remain dormant for an average of more than 10 years before detection. Also, Radford said. Capurro's efforts to find other scientific articles dealing with the subject were anything but thorough.

Galaxy Chemical Co., operated only on weekends for the first five years of its existence, starting full-time operations only in 1965. "There's no evidence that Galaxy Chemical could have had any effect," Radford said.

Then Radford, who is the first expert witness to take the stand in this trial, and who had done several nationally known studies on cancer rates among steelworkers and miners, put forward the possibility - on the basis of his own research and observations - that the valley's two paper mills, neither of which is still operating, might have had a role in making area residents prene to cancer.

Of the 10 cancer deaths studied by a Maryland Health Department task force, Radford said, three were caused by cancer of the lymphatic system, one of the body's two major circulatory systems.

Lymphatic cancers, Radford said, are among the rarer types of cancer to occur in humans, and to find three cases of lymphomas, or lymphatic cancers, in a population of 397 was unusual - twice the lymphoma rate that should have been expected in the area.

In addition, Radford said, he had found that "Cecil County as a whole has an excess of these cancers," - again, about twice, the number that should have been expected over a seven-year period.

"I can make no final conclusion." Radford said, "but. . . it is fact that the (three) individuals who had (this) type of cancer. . . all worked for the J & M paper mill" - the mill that until 1946 operated on the site where Galaxy Chemical Co. stood.

". . .If we are going to invoke any environmental agent, the exposure (to that agent) must have been 20 years (before the cancer was diagnosed), give or take a little. . . We know that paper mills were operating at that time." he said.

This new thesis apparently came as a surprise to the attorneys for Dr. Capurro, the pathologist who for several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s spearheaded various attacks on the Galaxy company. The complaints that Dr. Capurro and his neighbors initially make in the late 1960s concerned the foul odors that they said emanated from the plant.

The Galaxy firm was established to reprocess the chemical wastes of other firms, separating out basic chemicals and selling these pure products back to other firms.

Mraz's plant operations for several years included dumping the waste products of this process into open pits on the plant grounds. In 1971, the plant was shut down briefly by a Circuit Court judge who decided that clean-up procedures he had ordered were not progessing rapidy enough.

It was not until three years later, in 1974, that Capurro first pointed to the high cancer death rate in the valley and noted that several of the area's cancer victims had lived close to the Galaxy plant.

"We think it is notable," Dr. Capurro wrote in a study that was never published but was given to some reporters, "that the. . . people who died of lymphoma had all lived within about a kilometer of the plant, two, being within perhaps 100 meters."

Later in the same paper, Capurro summarized his findings by saying, "In a community where the residents were chronically exposed to a mixture of solvent vapors (the emissions from Galaxy) in the atmosphere, the annual death rate due to malignancies appears to be about seven times the rate otherwise expected. The total death rate in the community is thereby doubled."

Radford, who appeared as an expert witness on behalf of Mraz and the Galaxy company, said that he took this paragraph to mean that "because of the pollution in the valley from the plant) the death rate due to malignancies was very high."

Capurro and his attorneys have contended that Capurro never actually linked Galaxy to the cancer deaths.

The session in Judge Thomas Everngam's circuit courtroom in Caroline County ended today before Capurro's attorneys had a chance to cross-examination Radford. The trial is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.

Another nationally known specialist on enviromental causes of cancer, Dr. Samuel Epstein of the University of Minois, is expected to offer expert testimony next week on behalf of Dr. Capurro.