The widely held notion that industrialization has immersed mankind in a "carcinogenic soup" is now regarded as simplistic, misused and misleading by the physician-scientist who 20 years ago raised the concept of environmental factors as the principal cause of cancer.

He is John Higginson, founding director of the 11-nation International Agency for Research on Cancer, established here in 1966 to collect and sift worldwide cancer statistics for clues as to the origin of the disease. It was on the basis of his studies during the 1950s of South African black and U.S. cancer rates that Higginson hypothesized that probably two-thirds of non-skin cancers "are environmental in origin and therefore theoretically preventable."

This easily repeated but actually quite complex idea has burned bright in cancer politics ever since. It is a sacred tenet of the environmental movement, has been embodied in cancer-control legislation in the United States and other nations, and has contributed to popular despair over the presumed prevalance of cancer-causing menaces in food, air and water.

Industry, which is the villain of this chemical drama, might seek to find exoneration in Higginson's expressions of concern over how his thesis has fared during the past two decades. But it should be understood that Higginson is neither clearing industry nor disowning his earlier findings. Rather, with the benefit of an additional 20 years of numbers collecting and analysis, he has concluded that the environmental assaults on the human organism are only part of the mystery of cancer - and perhaps a relatively small part in terms of total cases. And, as offensive as it may be to environmental purists, he believes that an accumulation of evidence suggests that the manner in which people live - diet, stress, sexual and child-bearing patterns, and, especially, tobacco and alcohol consumption - accounts for the striking variations that are found in cancer rates around the world. These factors, he now strongly suggests, may be far more important than the chemical pollution and may, in fact, have become objects of relative neglect through concentration on industrial malefactors.

At the nub of Higginson's conclusions are studies showing that in countries with similar levels of industrialization, cancer incidence and mortality rates vary enormously. For example, in 1971, mortality from cancer of the prostate totaled 18.4 per 100,000 in Sweden, 11.2 in England and 1.9 in Japan. "Even if lung cancer is excluded," Higginson and a colleague observed in a recent paper, "cancer patterns within Europe show no correlations with industrialization. "Thus," they noted, "the incidence in nonindustrialized Geneva is as high as in urbanized England . . . Childhood cancers, which globally tend to be similar in incidence, do not correlate with industrialization."

Other statistics cited by Higginson invite awe about the depth of the mystery of this disease - and also suggest that cancer is an affliction waiting for a Newton or an Einstein to come along and make sense out of multitudes of seemingly incoherent data. Thus, excluding skin and lung cancers, the incidence per 100,000 for all other cancers in males in Singapore is 197 for Chinese, 119 for Indians. In two hard-drinking populations, Sweden and Geneva, the incidence of liver cancer varies greatly - 2.9 and 9.4, respectively, per 100,000 from 1968 to 1972. In reference to these variations, Higginson recently wrote, "Instead of accepting these observations with some relief as scientific facts that imply no immediate environmental, universal catastrophe, many would prefer to regard such a conclusion as smug and lacking in responsibility, since it contradicts certain political, societal, and quasi-scientific dogmas."

In a conversation here, Higginson said, "I've returned to where I was 20 years ago," by which he meant, he explained, "We've got to look at the facts. It's easy to get a lot of mileage out of saying that environmental and carcinogenic control would solve this problem. There is no doubt that high exposure in industrial settings is a serious danger. But for the general population, we simply need a lot more information."

Higginson continued: "We have an awful lot of confusing data that add up to a nasty muddle. We now have lots of information about where cancer is occurring, but what is becoming clear is that we lack data on the social side."

The danger of this, he said, is that the public is lulled into believing that effective measures are being taken against cancer, when, very likely, the most debated and publicized measures will be relatively ineffective.

Said Higginson, father of the theory of environment as the main source of cancer: "I'm prepared now to yield to the facts." CAPTION: Picture, no caption