A federal study has discovered a high rate of chromosome damage in a number of people living near the toxic waste site at the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Though officials of the Environmental Protection Agency emphasized that the results are preliminary because the sample tested was small, they also said the new evidence of health danger could lead to the forced relocation of more than 700 families still in the area.

Barbara Blum, deputy administrator of EPA, said yesterday, "The reason we're alarmed now is because this is the latest link in a whole chain of health hazards from Love Canal."

The study of blood samples from 36 Love Canal residents was conducted in January by Dr. Dante Picciano, of Biogenics Corp. of Houston. Significant chromonsomal abnormalities were found in 11 -- 30 percent -- of the samples, far higher than the normal rate of 1 in 100, according to Blum.

Chromosomes carry and transmit human hereditary characteristics, and damage can lead to cancer and genetic defects in babies.

The sampling was done in preparation for the government's $124 million suit against the Hooker Chemical Co., which is charged with dumping nearly 200,000 tons of toxic wastes in the Love Canal area from 1942 to 1953.

Hooker President Donald L. Baeder said in a statement yesterday that the firm was concerned "that these preliminary and uncorroborated medical results, if not properly understood, could cause unnecessary anxieties."

He called for further study, and said release of such preliminary data "can only add to the residents' anxiety and hysteria."

Picciano said in a letter to EPA that testing of a large sample of residents, plus an unexposed control group, is needed "before significance can be placed upon the results."

Blum said a team of genetics experts will complete a review of Picciano's findings by Wednesday, and the recommended longer-range study also is being undertaken.

She said the more comprehensive study wasn't started initially because it's expensive and because "we had no idea there would be chromosomal damage."

A team of EPA officials was in Niagara Falls yesterday to tell the study participants about the results. From letters to those with chromosome damage noted that blood cell abnormalities usually disapper once a person is removed from the cause of the problem.

Some residents greeted the EPA officials with demands that they get federal help to move immediately. "You can move thousands of Cubans, but you can't move us out of our homes," one man complained.

Louise Gibbs, president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association, asked, "What the hell is going to happen to our kids?"

Picciano said in his report that "it appears that the chemical exposures at Love Canal may be responsible for much of the apparent increase in the observed cytogenetic aberrations . . . ."

But he warned that until further tests are done, "prudence must be exerted in the interpretation of such results."

His sample was weighted toward people likely to have been heavily exposed to the leaking chemicals, but his report also noted that exposures were comparatively low at the time of the study because of the winter freeze. "Thus it appears that the apparent results a minimum of the possible induced level of cytogenetic damage," Picciano wrote.

Temporary relocation of the 700 families in the area could cost $5 million just for four months, Blum said yesterday. New York state already has relocated 239 families in the area immediately around the canal.

Hooker sold the canal ground to the Niagara Falls Board of Education in 1953. The company claims that the leaching of the chemical wastes was caused by the construction of roads and a school by the city and state.