A Navy seaman, who was diagnosed recently as having the early stages of asbestos disease, said yesterday that he and other sailors were required to work with little protection in a ship's engine room where they were heavily exposed to the cancer-causing mineral.

Ironically, the seamen were part of a Navy program to rip out all asbestos from its order ships after it became known that asbestos can produce lung cancers and other potentially fatal lung disease.

"The Navy hired civilian contractors to come in and rip the stuff out and they wouldn't work unless they had respirators and other protective equipment," said Krishna V.N. Rao, a seaman assigned to the destroyer USS Towers. "But we were told to sweep up after them and the only protection we had were cotton gauze masks we borrowed on our own from the civilian workers."

Rao said enlisted men on the ship routinely handled asbestoes during repair work before the Towers was brought in last year to the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in Long Beach, Calif., to have all its asbestos removed.

Rao said he went AWOL from the ship last month after the Navy refused to accept medical reports from several well-known experts on asbestosis that he had the disease. Instead, he was ordered back to his previous job in the ship's engine room where asbestos removal was going on after a Navy physician suggested that persons of Indian extraction had lowered lung capacity.

Copies of the medical reports and other documents related to the case were made available to The Washington Post.

The Navy is currently facing more than $1 billion in lawsuits from civilian shipyard workers who claim they were harmed by asbestos exposure during construction and repair work at various naval shipyards. A study of more than 6,000 workers at the Long Beach shipyard last year showed at least 31 per cent with more than 17 years on the job has asbestosis.

The disease involves an irreversible scarring of lung tissue by asbestos fibers and is often fatal.

Rao's cade has raised concern among some experts because his exposure to asbestos during his four-year hitch on the Towers as unusually short for asbestosis signs to appear.

Documents obtained by Rao also indicate that despite widespread public awareness of the dangers posed by asbestos for the last decade the senior officers on the Towers said they were never told of the hazard by the Navy until the middle of last year.

Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, a nationally known asbestos expert who diagnosed asbestosis in Rao, said it also raised serious question about other sailors exposed to asbestos on board their ships.

Two other experts, Dr. Roscoe C. Young, head of the Harden Pulmonary laboratory at Howard University, and Dr. Thomas F. Mosher, a San Diego physician who examined Rao at the Navy's request, both said the 24-year-old seaman was suffering from early stages of asbestosis.

Last month a Navy medical board of review rejected the doctors' diagnoses on the grounds that Rao's exposure was too short to have caused the disease. A Navy adviser to the board noted Rao's Indian background and said that Indians often have poorer lung function than other nationalities.

Rao, who was born in Philadelphia, said he had never been in India, In an interview his mother, Dr. Charo Rao, said that she sent Navy authorities medical literature which indicated Indians of Western height and weight, such as her son, did not have any unusual lung problems.

In a letter last June 27 the Navy's surgeon general, Vice Adm. W.P. A rentzen, explained to Dr. Rao, the Navy's position on asbestos and her son's case. The Navy, Arentzen wrote, had instituted "stringent precautions ashore and afloat" to eliminate sailors' exposure to airborne asbestos.

Arentzen said Rao's 3 1/2 years on the Towers was too short a period to develop asbestosis without exposure to unusually high levels of asbestos dust. "we have not been able to substantiate such levels in the day-to-day operations of our ships," the admiral said.

Rao said that during his four-year Navy hitch aboard the Towers he and other crewmen constantly handled asbestos while they worked in the ship's engine room.

"We had to pull it off pipes and valves and other equipment," he said. "Sometimes it just crumbled and left the area where we were working looking like a blizzard of snow. It was like a fine in the air when you looked at the lights."

Despite heavily publicized warnings about the potential danger from asbestos going back to 1964, Rao said the crew was never told by the Navy about the danger from the material or given protective equipment. The first they learned of asbestos hazards was from television announcements and from civilian workmen who came on board last year, he said.

A notarized affidavit signed April 15 of this year by a Navy attorney in Long Beach supports Rao's allegation.

The attorney, Lt. David G. Ackerman, said in the statement that he questioned the commanding officer and the executive officer of the Towers after he was approached about the asbestos problem by Rao.

The two ship's officers, Ackerman said, "stated that they were not aware of any asbestos problem concerning Navy ships until the spring or summer of 1978."

Before that, said Ackerman, "the ship had no provisions at all for personel working around asbestos." After last summer the commanding officer instituted air monitoring. Ackerman said he found that, despite a Navy order Aug. 8, 1978, requiring masks and respirators for crew handling asbestos, they were not placed on the ship until last February.

A Navy spokesman yesterday said the service ordered asbestos removed from ships in 1975. But he declined to comment on why the officers of the Towers were not notified of asbestos hazards until last year.

The spokesman said the Navy would not comment on its past asbestos policy because of the lawsuits still pending against the service by civilian asbestos workers.