"YOU DON'T have to be a doctor," says a Love Canal mother, "to know that there's something wrong here." True enough.But it's going to require legions of doctors and scientists and many years to find out just what is wrong -- and ultimately it may even prove to be impossible.

Unfortunately, in the absence of medical evidence, anecdotal evidence is mounting up -- in press reports and from the personal stories of Love Canal residents -- that may be painting a very misleading picture. A recent story, for example, related that among the 15 families on one particular street, six women have had breast cancer; and three houses away lives a man with bladder cancer; and three houses down from him lives another with throat cancer. That might seem to say that the buried chemicals are causing an epidemic of cancer at Love Canal: in fact, it says nothing about the cause.

In order to determine whether cancer incidence in a particular area is higher than normal, many factors have to be accounted for. Among the most important are genetics (family history of cancer); occupational exposures; personal habits, including diet and smoking (which is associated with bladder, kidney, pancreas and other cancers as well as with lung cancer); and environmental exposures (including, but not limited to, toxic chemicals). To determine whether there is a higher rate of cancer at Love Canal and whether the buried chemicals are responsible, Love Canal residents must be compared with control groups of people who are similar in all respects to Love Canal residents except in exposure to the chemicals. That is obviously an awesome task, made even more difficult by the fact that the Love Canal population is quite small. In a small community whose members have similar habits, diets and occupations, factors other than the chemicals could well be the culprits.

Another confounding factor is stress, which is known to be linked to increased rates of dozens of diseases from cancer to arthritis to viral infections. Though everyone is constantly subjected to challenge from potential disease-causers, the healthy person fights them off. Stress, in ways not yet known, seems to weaken the body's ability to combat these challenges, and thus can affect an individual's likelihood of getting a particular disease. Stress is also a prime candidate to be the cause of many of the generalized ailments that prevail at Love Canal. The families in the area who seem to have tried to ignore the chemicals and go about their daily business as though nothing had happened are apparently in much better physical condition than their close neighbors. What is cause and what is effect in this is unknown.

All this is not to imply that the suffering at Love Canal is not real -- it is -- or that the chemicals have had no effect. But with an estimated 30,000 chemical dumps scattered around the country, it is important to everyone's health and well-being that it not become an article of faith that buried chemicals automatically cause cancer, chromosome damage or anything else. They may, or they may not. It need not lessen the urgency to find out to keep a reasonably open mind until the medical evidence is in.