America's chemical past has risen from its shallow grave in yet another community, alarming residents and sending environmental officials hurrying to the laboratories in search of a way to deal with it.

Unlike the Love Canal, the "Woburn problem," as it is known here, is in an isolated industrial area well away from the nearest home in this predominantly blue-collar city of 38,000 about 10 miles northwest of Boston.

But residents find it frightening nonetheless, particularly since a state health department study late last year found the city's cancer death rate sharply higher than the state's as a whole.

"We are very concerned," said John Rabbitt, president of the Woburn City Council. "We only hope that the [clean up] plan [being worked out by state and federal officials] can be carried out quickly."

A witness at a community meeting Wednesday put it more bluntly: "The health of ourselves and our children is at stake."

The Woburn site has a long history both as a dump for noxious material and as an annoyance to its neighbors. Its first known occupant was Merrimac Chemical Co., which located here in 1853 to produce acids and other chemicals for regional textile, leather and paper industries.

From then until the early 1970s, it was occupied by a succession of chemical and other industrial firms, including tanneries and gluemakers. Most of them, in the words of the Environmental Protection Agency's Richard T. Leighton, "used their back 40 to dump their waste." Complaints about foul odors emanating from the area date back to the 1860s.

No action was taken, however, and by the 1970s, because of its proximity to Route 128 (Boston's beltway) and Interstate 93, the area had become one of the state's prime pieces of commercial real estate. Today much of it has been developed and is known as Industri-Plex 128.

But last year funny things began to happen:

An Industri-Plex building had to be evacuated when it was found to contain explosive concentrations of methane gas.

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority discovered 185 drums of unknown contents abandoned on a tract it owns in the area. The drums were found to contain relatively harmless solidified industrial waste, but routine follow-up checks turned up trichloroethylene contamination in two nearby municipal water wells. Trichloroethylene, a commercial solvent, is a suspected cancer agent.

An EPA employe, driving by on I-93, spotted construction crews filling in marshy areas on the more than 300 acres that remain undeveloped. Checks revealed that the developer lacked the necessary permit, and the filling was halted. But again routine follow-up turned up a hazard, this time high concentrations of arsenic, chromium, lead and other heavy metals in soil and several old settling ponds. These metals are poisonous as well as suspected carcinogens.

Other site preparation work by the developer unearthed vast numbers of old hides and other animal waste, evidently buried long ago by the tanners and renders who occupied the site. Each time a bulldozer disturbs one of these hide piles it releases what one resident of the downwind community of Reading called "a stench that would choke a buzzard."

EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering are attempting to determine the scope of the problem and figure out what to do about it. The two agencies hired a New York consultant to examine the situation but his report, presented to the public at this week's community meeting, is little more than a catalog of what further information is needed.

Officials are negotiating with the developer for his agreement to clean up the heavy metals and hides in exchange for permits to continue development.

But the 250 to 300 people who turned out for the meeting plainly were worried that these measures will take too long or be too costly.

The agreement in the form of a consent decree as now envisioned would require the developer to set aside a small amount of the site for a permanent, leak-proof storage facility, according to DEQE officials. The state has no other site at which such material may be dumped legally. Asked if the residents realized that "cleanup" under the decree does not mean removal, a DEQE official replied "This community understands."

A total of 800 acres is under study and the area could be expanded depending on what is found.

Merrill S. Hohman of EPA's Boston office said it is already plain that his agency "does not have the resources we need to solve the problem." He noted that EPA announced in Washington Wednesday that it is freeing $150,000 to devote to Woburn, but he called this only a "patchwork of begging and borrowing from other programs." Another EPA official said before the meeting, "People are expecting answers and there arent's any."