President Carter's chief inflation fighters are engaged in a crucial struggle with top regulatory officials over how much the country can afford to pay to clean up the environment.

Charles Schultze, the president's chief economic adviser, has been leading a quiet effort to dilute or delay regulations that would protect the health of millions of Americans. The economic experts believe those regulations would fuel inflation by adding billions of dollars to the cost of doing business.

The failure to protect workers and consumers from devastating diseases, however, would be even more costly to the economy, environmental officials argue. They complain that the economists have singled them out while ignoring other costly issues, such as the special tax breaks and subsidies that big corporations have wangeld out of Washington.

Now we have learned that Schultze may have violated the law by personally putting pressure on environmental officials logn after the deadline for public comment had expired. Schultze made several phone calls to Douglas Costle, the environmental chief, in an attempt to influence his agency's ruling on the amount of lead that will be tolerated in the air. The calls came well after the official deadline had expired.

Schultze asked Costle, according to competent sources, how he could convey his concern over the proposed lead standard. Costle carefully warned him not to raise any information that wasn't already in the public record or the regulations could be invalidated.

"The game has to be played by the rules," Costle reportedly told him.

A spokesman confirmed to our reporter Vicki Warren that Schultze "has been in touch with Costle after the public comment period was over." He insisted, however, that Shultze had not violated the law because he didn't introduce any new information. The law, he noted, "is enormously complicated."

But other White House economists also lobbied with the Environmental Protection Agency over the lead standard more than two months after comment period had ended. At a two-hour meeting in early August, the economic aides handed over a thick report that critized the lead standard as too severe. The rules on public comment were established, it should be noted, to prevent any improper pressure from industry executives or other special interests.

Most of the lead in the air comes from gasoline additives and is sparayed out of automobile exhaust pipes, although some billows out of industrial smokestacks. The problem is most severre in urban areas, where the lead settles on the children's playgrounds. High levels of lead also add to air pollution and make it difficult for persons with respiratory ailments to breathe.

The proposed lead rules would require an initial capital outlay of $620 million, followed by $140 million a year for maintenance. Industrial firms are bitterly opposd to any new regulations. But the Environmental Defense Fund may take Schultze to court over, what it considers his illegal intervention on the issue.

Lead pollution is not the only issue in this high-stakes struggle between the environmentalists and the industrialists. All environmental regulations have come under increased scrutiny, after one of Carter's quiet advisers Robert Strauss, singled them out as a major cause of inflation.

That was followed by a backroom skirmish between the presidents economic advisers and safety officials. The Occupational Sagety and Health Administration tried to set limits on worker exposure to cotton dust. That was intended to protect 600,000 textile workers from brown-lung disease. But Schultze, supported by wage-price adviser barry Bosworth, tried to waterdown the standard. The backroom fight eventually involved the president himself.

One safety official later complained that hte confrontation with his own White House colleagues "was harder than fighting the industry." The economic side of the White House won at least a tactical victory. The deadline was extended for four years, and the cost of controlling cotton dust was scaled down from $27 billion to $80 million.

The next battle involved pollution control in areas of the country when the air is already clean. This time, the wage-price council intervened two months after the comment period ended. But the environmental agency didn't retreat from its strict standards, to prevent the deterioration of clean air.

The two sides ar still feuding over efforts to remove cancer-causing substances from the nation's drinking water. There has already been a scarce over the high levels of carcinogens found in the New Orleans drinking supply.

Similar sniping has broken out in nearly ever industry. The White House economists have weighed in at the Interior Department on new standards to control strip mining. ANd there has been White House pressure at the Transportation Department over plane to make the nation's mass-transit systems more accessible to the elderly and handicapped.

The question of whether all these regulations are worth the inflationary impact has divided the Carter, administration into two bitterly opposed factions. It is not likely to end anytime soon.