International asbestos manufacturers last year sought to play down the dangers of the cancer-causing mineral because they feared it would cut into European sales, according to documents released yesterday by a California congressman.

Rep. George Miller (D Calif.) told a hearing of the House subcommittee on labor standards that minutes of the European Advisory Councill of the Asbestos Information Association contained indications of fears by asbestos manufacturers that their European asbestos products could end up with a 'skull and crossbones' label.

AFL-CIO officials at the same hearing charged the asbestos industry in the United States of 'knowingly causing great suffering and death' among asbestos workers to make money.

'We feel some employers are guilty as hell,' said Allen B. Coats, a general representative of the AFL-CIO metal trades department.

The head of the labor standards sub-committee, Rep. Edward P. Beard (D-R.L.), said he would introduce legislation to force asbestos manufacturers to turn to substitutes for their product where possible9

'And I call on scientists and engineers to come up with substitutes,' Beard said.

Miller has been a sharp critic of the asbestos industry. He urged that responsibility for the billions of dollars in lawsuits filed inthe last few years against the asbestos manufacturers by workers and others with asbestos-related disease not be paid by federal tax money.

The asbestos industry has supported a bill that would establish a joint industry-federal fund to pay for the costs of asbestos lawsuits.

Federal cancer experts have estimated that up to 17 percent of all cancers expected to develop in the United States in the near future will be caused at least partly by asbestos exposure.

Documents turned over last year to newspapers and another congressional committee chaired by Miller showed that senior asbestos industry offi cials sought to suppress information in the United States about asbestos dangers as far back as the late 1920s.

Miller yesterday released additional documents which included minutes of the Asbestos Textile Institute, another asbestos industry trade group, which met in 1957. Representatives of most of the large U.S. asbestos manufacturers attended that meeting, according to the minutes.

At the meeting the asbestos officials declined to pay for a study on asbestos dangers because of a Canadian study already under way and because of the $7,500 cost of such a study.

'There is a feeling among certain members that such an investigation would stir up a hornets' nest and put the whole industry under suspicion,' the memorandum of the minutes says.

In his statement yesterday, Miller also cited a 1973 letter the Raybestos-Manhattan Co. from Dr. John Marsh, head of the firm's environmental affairs division.

In the letter, Marsh warned of the 'seriousness of the asbestos healthe issue8' and noted that a 1973 meeting in which he outlined asbestos problems 'would be more than sufficient to shock people into action.'

'This has not happened,' Marsh wrote, according to Miller.