Virginia and Maryland officials are debating whether a bulky, accordion-like rubber gasoline pump nozzle that has proved to be unpopular in the District is the key to meeting a 1987 federal deadline for clean air.

At stake, if the region does not reduce gasoline pollution emissions by 1987, are millions of dollars in federal transportation funds, according to conditions of the National Clean Air Act.

The system is "far and away the single most effective measure" for reducing pollution locally, said Robert Kaufmann, an environmental planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Known as the Stage II Vapor Recovery System, the equipment traps fumes that would escape from an ordinary gasoline pump nozzle and forces them back through a rubber hose. Without its use in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and Northern Virginia, there is little chance that the region can attain the specified clean air level by the deadline, according to COG studies. Nationally, more than 300 communities are under federal pressure to cut gasoline emissions.

Virginia officials disagree with COG's assessment that the system is necessary, and Maryland officials are still considering the options. Both states have resisted requiring the cumbersome devices that are unpopular with consumers and service station owners.

"People complain about spillage, [gasoline] getting on their cars, their shoes," said Michael DeSanto, director of governmental affairs for the Greater Washington Maryland Service Station Association.

"It's controversial, to say the least," said George Ferreri, director of Maryland's Air Management Administration.

The District, which uses a vapor recovery system known as the balance system, first required the nozzles eight years ago. They have been the source of nearly constant complaint, many service station owners say.

District service station owners complain that the unpopular equipment has cost them customers and is too expensive to maintain.

Harry Murphy said that before he sold his two Northwest service stations last year, he spent $4,500 annually for repairs and maintenance on the nozzles alone.

"The problem is they're so doggone cumbersome," Murphy said. "Where they may work in the laboratory, they don't work in the field."

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report found that more than half of the District's 169 stations did not meet the regulations last year, many because of missing or broken parts on the nozzles. After a "vigorous" enforcement program in which 15 cases were referred to the D.C. corporation counsel for court action, city officials said, a survey during the summer found that 88 percent of the stations had properly working equipment.

The issue may soon become a national one. EPA officials, concerned about studies linking gasoline vapors to cancer, are expected to announce within a few months whether the agency will require that all service stations have the nozzles or that new automobiles have additional pollution control devices.

Studies by the American Petroleum Institute found an incidence of tumors in rats exposed to high levels of gasoline vapors. API has since drafted warning labels that can be voluntarily posted at gasoline stations.

More recently, EPA has revised estimates on the incidence of cancer linked to exposure to gasoline at places like self-service pumps. The estimates have jumped "significantly," according to an EPA official. New estimates have not been announced because of industry concerns over how they were derived, the official said.

Many persons believe that imposing the vapor recovery system or new vehicle controls nationally may be a drastic action that the Reagan administration is not ready to take.

Locally, proponents of the special nozzle say its use could account for 40 percent of the pollution reduction necessary for the Washington area to reach the federal clean air standard. But Virginia officials maintain there are other ways to meet the standard.

William Meyer, director of the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board, said state studies show that further reduction of gasoline emissions from automobiles can significantly improve the air. Virginia's plan calls for closer inspection of vehicle pollution control devices, he said.

Part of the regional plan to cut down on gasoline emissions includes encouraging people to ride Metro, increasing car-pooling and synchronizing traffic signals.

But "these efforts are minuscule compared to Stage II [nozzles]," according to Kaufmann.

A July 1 report by Maryland's Air Management Administration noted that the nozzles, in use so far only in the District and parts of California, may be the "only reasonable choice" for the state.

Even strengthening and expanding the state's controversial vehicle emissions inspection program would not cut down enough on pollutants to reach the required clean air levels, according to the report.

But Maryland officials, concerned about the controversy generated by the emissions testing program, are wary of implementing something that has angered customers and service station owners in the District.

Del. Sheila Hixson (D-Montgomery), head of a state committee on the environment, said a public hearing will be held next month on the issue and suggested that "perhaps this isn't the only solution." A committee of Virginia officials will meet this week to discuss possible air quality measures.

Still, many persons contend that if the pattern of use in Maryland and Virginia were to follow that in the District, it would be difficult to force the public and station owners to use the special nozzles enough to significantly reduce emissions.

"A heck of a lot of [District station owners] take them off and don't use the darn things," according to Murphy. "They feel a fine of up to $5,000 is cheaper than losing the customers."