For 25 years millworker Gilmore Rowland helped manufacture the nation's textiles, coughing and wheezing and choking as he bent over thick piles of raw cotton that were being pounded and stretched into yarn for weaving fabric.

Gaunt and frail-voiced, he finally quit the mill in 1971 because "I couldn't catch my breath." Local doctors told him he had asthma, but seven years after his retirement he learned differently: Rowland, now 61, suffers from byssinosis, or brown lung, a respiratory disease caused by inhaling cotton dust.

For years Virginia's Southside textile industry denied that the incapacitating illness existed. Even today, faced with a controversy that has raged in North and South Carolina, mill owners still challenge the notion that cotton dust is or ever was a serious health hazard.

"There's no such thing as brown lung, factually," says David W. Johnston Jr., president of Dan River Inc., the mammoth textile firm that hugs the sleepy Danville waterway from which the plant takes its name. "A lot of people grew up never believing cotton would be considered harmful, and a lot of us still don't believe it."

That attitude apparently is shared by the state of Virginia, which has paid scant attention to brown lung. If Rowland had lived only 20 miles to the south, in North Carolina, he would have been eligible to share in the more than $7 million in benefits that injured textile workers there have received.

In Virginia, Rowland cannot even file a claim because the state's time limit has run out in his case.

The Dan River mill, where he worked, is one of the largest of the mills that flourish in the textile heart land of the South. Tucked under a huge sign that dominates this town, Dan River employs about 8,000 of Danville's 50,000 residents. None of them, according to company officials who have done their own studies, has any greater likelihood of developing lung problems than those who work in a noncotton environment.

But according to the Virginia Brown Lung Association, a Carolina-spawned group that branched out into Virginia a year ago, byssinosis eventually will stike between 8 and 12 percent of the state's more than 13,000 millworkers. About 100 former and current mill employes already have lodged respiratory complaints with the association in the last year.

"It's a huge problem that's being looked into by other states and being totally ignored here," says Elizabeth Scott, a staff organizer for the brown lung group. "Textile workers are treated like pieces of machinery, and when they are all used up, they are let go and the mills hire someone who's healthy."

The association wants to get state workers' compensation and disability benefits for brown lung sufferers, many of whom, like Rowland, retired from the mills years before the disease was well known. Those people are now blocked from bringing claims by Virginia's five-year statute of limitations.

The group's efforts have been stymied not only by the present law, but by confusion over how workers exposed to cotton dust should be compensated for breathing ailments they later experience.

Dr. James Merchant, a lung specialist from West Virginia University at Morgantown, says the giant textile industry has tried to define byssinosis and its symptoms "as narrowly as possible because this obviously reduces the number of claims." He adds, however, that it is well established that cotton dust causes bronchitis and other breathing problems. Enough is known about the consequences of cotton dust exposure to justify compensating injured workers, he says.

Brown lung symptoms -- a tightening of the chest at the start of the work week, obstruction of air passages, fluids in the lungs -- should be a warning to textile workers, medical experts say. Yet byssinosis does not actually cause the lungs to change pigmentation, and because the tissue deterioration that occurs does not show up on X-rays, the disease often is hard to detect or diagnose.

Because of this peculiarity, Dan River and other textile manufacturers complain that workers are being misled, mistaking brown lung for other respiratory problems not linked to the industry. Of 3,760 of its cotton workers tested, for exmample, Dan River reports finding only 24 who exhibited the chest-tightening symptom most chiefly associated with byssinosis. Of others who had breathing problems, according to Johnston, "94 percent smoked, for what it's worth -- and we think it's worth a lot."

The industry argues that textile firms should not be expected to pay compensation to workers suffering from asthma, chronic bronchitis or other breathing difficulties that may result from smoking. In a recent precedent-setting ruling, Virginia's Industrial Commission apparently agreed.

The decision came in the case of 60-year-old Janie Simpkins, who worked in Dan River's spinning room from 1942 until 1979. Until a pulmonary specialist at Duke University and another physician diagnosed her trouble as brown lung, Simpkins believed her breathing problems came from a heart condition.

Hers was the first brown lung case in years to reach full commission. Although the two doctors testified that her respiratory ailment was largely the result of exposure to cotton dust, the commission rejected her claim for compensation for an occupational disease. The reason: Simpkins had been a smoker for 40 years.

Her smoking history, says Dr. Herbert A. Saltzman, the Duke professor involved in the case, interfered with a pure diagnosis of brown lung. In an industry whose workers historically have smoked, he argues, the problem of placing the blame for respiratory ailments often is decided by courts and confrontation rather than medicine or science. Studies on the subject have reached contradictory conclusions on whether the lung damage can be uniquely attributed to smoking or exposure to cotton dust.

"In North Carolina, for the most part, if the patient smoked and also had symptoms of byssinosis, there would be a judgment that working in the cotton mill contributed to the respiratory problems," Saltzman says. "But Virginia has no developed criteria for making good decisions."

The state's workers' compensation law as it applies to brown lung allows millworkers to file a claim within two years of the date of diagnosis or within five years of the last injurious exposure, whichever comes first. The legislature has exempted certain products, such as asbestos, from the statute of limitations, but a similar accommodation has not been approved for byssinosis.

"More people know about brown lung now, but in 1930 and 1940 when the mills were a lot dirtier, nobody knew about it," says Rick Wheeler, whose legal aid office in Danville is gearing up to tackle a test case. "We've got clients who retired five or seven years ago, and they're dying. I've got one woman now who is so sick we can't get her to Duke for a diagnosis."

Lucian Hiner, chief deputy commissioner of the Virginia Industrial Commission, says that if the legislature chose to, it could enact better guidelines for judging brown lung cases and could also lift the statute of limitation on filing such claims.

So far, no Virginia lawmaker has rushed to take up the brown lung issue. The Brown Lung Association has yet to find anyone who will agree to sponsor legislation even to study the subject.

"It's relatively new to all of us," says Danville Del. Calvin W. Fowler, explaining why he and others have remained uninvolved. Fowler recently promised the brown lung group he would try to set up a hearing in Richmond so "they can at least have their say, but it's really up to the subcommittee." Without a specific bill to ponder, however, it is doubtful any General Assembly panel will take a closer look at the matter.

Mill owners, meanwhile, continue to chafe at U.S. regulations that have forced them to install millions of dollars worth of equipment to vacuum the cotton dust they insist is harmless. Dan River has begun making extensive breathing tests on its employes while blaming smoking or cotton dust "alergies" for any respiratory troubles.

"We believe the problem is not related to work in the plants," says Johnston, who notes that his firm has opposed every byssinosis case any of its workers have tried to initiate. "We think illness from working in a cotton environment was overstated. We sympathize with anybody who is ill, but we don't think we have an obligation to compensate them."

Danville's former and present millworkers, such as Rowland, Simpkins and Letcher Adkins, think otherwise. Nonsmoker Rowland, denied workers' compensation because his claim would be too old, lives with his cancer-striken wife on his $325-a-month Social Security check.

Simpkins, who has stopped smoking but still has breathing problems, says her concern now is for young people and other family members who have gone into the mills despite all the warnings. Adkins, 52, says he cannot afford to quit his $295-a-week job, even though a doctor at Duke says he has developed brown lung.

"I'm back working, but I'm in no shape to do a hard day's work," Adkins says. "And I don't think I could go out to some other company and get a job in my condition."