The giant American Cyanamid Corp. has what can only be described as a corporate public relations man's nightmare on its hands here.

What began a year ago as a drive, according to the chemical conglomerate's spokesmen, to shift its female employes out of positions at the company's plant here where exposure to lead could harm their unborn children has backfired into charges by five of the women that they had to have themselves surgically sterilized to keep their jobs.

The women, who range in age from 26 to 43, said in interviews that they reluctantly allowed themselves to be sterilized at 3 local hospital after they were pressured by American Cyanamid officials at the company's Ohio River chemical complex.

Two other women who did not have the operations were transferred out of the plant's pigment division into lesser-paying janitorial jobs in October.

The entire 17-woman component of the company's production force here has sought advice from a local lawyer on what to do next. Their union, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, has vowed to make their case into a national issue.

"These women were forced to make a Draconian choice that nobody should have to make," said Anthony Mazzocchi, the union's vice president. "We are seeking to mobilize as broad a coalition on this one as we possibly can."

In addition to seeking support from other unions for the women, Mazzorchi said his union also is soliciting backing from women's rights groups and from supporters of the right-to-life movement.

"It's an outrageous situation and American Cyanamid is not the only company that is trying to force women out of the workplace rather than clean it up," said Mazzocchi. "Women who have been able to enter these jobs as a result of their own struggle are now being confronted with the dismal choice of relinquishing their right to have children or their jobs."

Spokesman for the chemical company emphatically denied that American Cyanamid was responsible for the sterilization of the women. They said the policy was aimed solely at protecting unborn children.

"Our doctor met with all of the women in September when our policy was announced," said a spokesman here. "At that time we said that we discourage sterilization and that if it was done we did not sanction it."

A spokesman at the firm's corporate headquarters in Wayne, N.J., said "from a moral point of view the company feels it is on the side of the angels in this thing."

Other firms, such as General Motors, reportedly have refused to assign women to jobs with lead exposure and the policy has drawn fire from women's groups. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has indicated that blanket exclusionary policies may violate federal civil rights laws. In 1977 American Cyanamid tried to bar women from jobs with harmful chemicals at its Linden, N.J., plant, but the company dropped its policy after opposition from the United Steelworkers.

In the American Cyanamid situation here, the company's spokesmen claim the case against lead is so well documented that they decided to restrict all women workers under 50 with child bearing capacity to two sections of the plant where no lead is used.

More than 100 chemical base products are manufactured at the 30-year-old plant, which sits on the Ohio River next to a power plant where 51 workmen were killed in a scaffold collapse earlier this year.

Originally the chemical company's work restriction policy would have affected all the plant's women production workers. But in September the policy was limited to just the pigment section. Women in the plant said, however, they were told by company officials at the time that the policy eventually would be expanded to cover all but the two non-lead departments "within a few months."

The women said that last January, they were told during two meetings with plant officials that some chemicals at the plant, as well as lead, were potentially dangerous to pregnant women and that their jobs would be shifted.

"They told us we could go to the janitorial department, but that if there weren't enough jobs there some of us might have to leave," said Betty Moler, one of the women who was sterilized. Janitorial department workers make less money and have less chance for overtime, she said.

Moler and the other women interviewed said the two departments left open to the women for transfer out of the janitorial department were both staffed with men who had seniority, so there were no openings. All the women insist company officials pressured them directly or indirectly to accept sterilization.

In an interview at her home in Belmont near here Moler, who is 27 and has one son, said she told company officials her husband already had had a vasectomy. She said she was told that did not matter.

Another of the women, Lola Rymer, 43, said the women offered to sign papers so the company would not be held liable for any lead exposure problems. That also was rejected, she said.

"I wasn't going to have any more kids at my age," said Rymer, who has three children, one with cerebral palsy, and a husband disabled with arthritis. "But I don't think it's right that a company can tell you to do a thing like this to keep your job. I did it because I was scared and I had to have the income."

The women said they went ahead with the operations because of pressure from company officials and because they stood to lose several thousand dollars in overtime pay if they shifted jobs.

"I wish now I'd have been stronger. I didn't want to be sterile," said Barbara Cantwell, a divorced worker who was sterilized in June. Cantwell, 31, has two children.

"When you're faced with something like this from a big company you feel powerless," she said. "But this is 1978. What do you have to do to hold a normal job and support your child?"

The company's lead policy apparently contradicts federal regulations on the metal that were issued in October by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The new regulations cut the allowable level of airborne lead in the workplace to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air from the former 200 microgram level. In addition, the regulations set a 30 microgram "action level" at which a company must initiate special monitoring. The regulations warn of possible neurological damage to a fetus at lead levels above 30 micrograms and to all adults at over a 50 microgram reading.

The new regulations were strongly opposed by the lead industry, including American Cyanamid.

Supposedly, if the regulations are followed there should be no harm to a fetus. "Given the data in this record," the regulations state, "OSHA believes there is no basis whatever for the claim that women of childbearing age should be excluded from the workplace in order to protect the fetus."

American Cyanamid declined requests from The Washington Post to be allowed to see the company's measurements of lead dust in the air of the pigment section, where paint is mixed. The company also refused to allow photographs of the area. Workers at the plant said, however, that the pigment section often is covered with a fine mist of airborne particles that include lead.

A spokesman for the company said the women were ordered shifted out of the section, not because of high lead levels in the air, but because the OSHA "action level" of 30 micrograms may not be adequate to protect pregnant women.

"We're not sure how safe a fetus would be even at the action level," said Joseph Caparossi, American Cyanamid's safety director. "My interpretation of the data is different than OSHA's interpretation." CAPTION: Picture, When her employer tried to shift her to lower-paid work in a lead-free area, Betty Moler says, she underwent sterilization to keep her job., By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post