Most developing nations look to the United States for food and technology, which Americans supply in generous abundance. But some U.S. firms are also unloading shoddy and unsafe goods upon the Third World. That dumping operation has made the United States the world's leading exporter of hazardous products.

The federal government routinely permits products that have been banned in America to be exported, thus promoting safety at home and profits from abroad. That double standard has touched off a spirited debate in the back rooms of Washington. On the one hand, it seems immoral and hypocritical for the government to protect American consumers from dangerous products that are then peddled to unsuspecting customers overseas. Yet the U.S. government, it is also argued, should not impose our national morality on foreign cultures.

The controversy was brought to a head last March by our report that Tristreated children's pajamas were being sold overseas. The Consumer Product Safety Commission had banned the sale in the United States of garments that had been treated with the cancer-causing chemical Tris. That left several firms with a large inventory of cancer-causing clothing on their hands.

White House consumer adviser Esther Peterson is now conducting a quiet, comprehensive review of the sensitive issue. She has concluded that the government simply lacks a coherent export policy. After our story, for example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission also banned the export of Tris-treated garments. But other cancer-causing products are sold abroad freely, including food additives such as cyclamates and Red Dye No. 2. Also available for export are electric toys, unsafe baby pacifiers, hazardous cosmetics adulterated drugs, poisonous pesticides and products with dangerous amounts of asbestos.

Some banned products might be considered, by some countries, to be worth the risk. Depo Provera, for example, is an injectable contraceptive banned in this country because it may cause cancer. But some countries, oppressed by overpopulation, have virtually begged U.S. officials to let them purchase it. The antibiotic chloromycetin is also severely restricted in the United States, yet is widely used abroad to combat infectious diseases rarely found here.

But moral questions are raised by other sales. Nestle's infant formula, for example, is perfectly safe in the United States. But in backward countries, where the water is unclean and sterilization inadequate, the formula can cause illness in infants who drink it. Illiterate families who cannot follow the explicit directions on the formula's package may also produce malnutrition in their children.

Yet there are heavy economic pressures on the White House to permit the exports to continue without government interference. For the profits are growing along with the world's population, which wants to buy more U.S. products. The foreign sales, of course, also reduce the nation's troubling trade deficit.

Occasionally, the export of harmful products can boomerang in unexpected ways. Dangerous pesticides sold overseas, for instance, have been used to spray food crops that were later imported back into the United States. Even bootleg, Tris-treated pajamas could turn up in domestic stores, with foreign labels.

Some firms, seeking escape from U.S. regulations, are also setting up shop in more agreeable climes. Yet they continue to produce goods for the lucrative U.S. market. This emerging trend is described in a federally funded study by Barry Castleman, a respected chemical engineer.

"As certain hazardous and polluting industries come under increasing regulation in industrial nations," the study says, "some of the affected processes are exported . . . to non-regulating countries where cheap and ignorant labor is abundant." Those "runaway shops" then enjoy the "competitive advantage of not having had to comply with costly workplace and pollution-control regulations."

Asbestos factories, for example, once shifted from northeastern to southern states in pursuit of cheaper, non-union labor. Now they're moving to such places as Brazil, Mexico and South Korea to escape the laws regulating asbestos. One asbestos manufacturer called Amatex, the study alleges, moved a plant recently from Pennsylvania to Mexico. According to eyewitnesses, the new plant is already caked with asbestos waste, which is also strewn across a nearby dirt road where children walk to school. Yet the workers and their families haven't been warned about the risk of cancer and lung disease.