If you want to see a massive, combined federal regulatory attack on a single subject, take a look at what is in the works for asbestos.

Used for years as an insulator -- against fire, electricity or chemical reaction -- asbestos now has been isolated as a cancer-causing agent in humans. The same long, flexible fibers that give the unusual mineral its commercial insulation qualities turn out, when inhaled by humans, to cause asbestosis, a non-malignant scarring of the lungs. That fact has been known for a long time. Recently, however, scientific data have shown asbestos also causes lung cancer and a cancer of the chest and stomach lining in workers.

Enter three government agencies: the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), with responsibility for protecting workers; the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), whose main concern is the safety of purchasers and use of products around the home, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, whose area of interest is the overall impact on both humans and the environment.

All three have put regulations on the books that govern the amount of asbestos that can be inhaled by workers; the amount that can be released by manufactureres in the air, and some asbestos products have been banned from the marketplace.

Each agency has now decided, however, that even more stringent standards are needed and all have under way extensive plans for future regulations, as disclosed in the Nov. 24, Federal Register (pages 77840 OSHA, 77883 CPSC, 77868 EPA).

OSHA, for example, in 1972 set a worker exposure limit of 2 million asbestos fibers per cubic meter over an eight-hour period, designed to protect the up to 2.5 million workers who have some occupational exposure to the substance. Now OSHA is looking at reducing that exposure limit to one-quarter of the standard or lower. It also is studying other ways of regulating worker exposure based on the type of industry involved -- different approaches for construction where asbestos in used as against general industry.

CPSC is in the midst of attempting to determine all those products on the market that use asbestos. "We do not know exactly how many asbestos-containing products are available to the consumer," the commission's register notice states. But since October 1979, the commission has been trying to find out. A questionnaire to be sent out to manufacturers, importers and private labelers of various categories of products is now being reviewed by the General Accounting Office to make certain it does not present a burden or require information that is already available.

CPSC will send the questionnaire out and then review the information when it comes in. Initially it will look at those products that definitely show some asbestos fiber release. "The presence of asbestos fibers can . . . pose an ongoing inhalation risk in the household," according to the CPSC notice, which goes on to point out that "unlike the workplace, where engineering systems and protective clothing are available . . ., the home provides household members with little or no protection. . . ."

At the same time, CPSC plans to determine whether it should "issue a standard or ban, concerning asbestos-containing products, require labeling . . ., encourage some form of voluntary action by industry, or take other action."

EPA is looking at things on a much grander scale. Its notice points out that "OSHA lacks the legislative mandate to address the problem of asbestos exposure outside the workplace." As for CPSC, it "would not affect production of industrial asbestos-containing products, and these production processes may cause significant fiber emissions."

It falls to EPA, therefore, to consider an approach like prohibiting "a large portion of the domestic production and importation of asbestos-containing products into the United States," according to its notice.

EPA has under way a study of the cumulative effects of asbestos exposure "through its lifecycle in commercial and industrial products from mining and milling through processing, product manufacturing, use and disposal." The initial data from that study indicate, EPA says, "substantial continuing exposure of millions of people to the ever-growing inventory of asbestos sources."

To meet this asbestos problem, EPA is considering several alternatives. They range from "prohibiting the manufacture, processing, distribution in commerce and importation of asbestos for all nonessential asbestos uses," to limiting the amount of asbestos that could be mined or imported, to labeling all asbestos-containing products or any combination of approaches.

EPA is also at work on another major asbestos program -- identifying all asbestos insulation in public school buildings and preparing to remove it from those places where it is a hazard. The school program is under way and Congress has even authorized a grant program to remove dangerous asbestos once it is identified. Also being studied are similar programs for locating dangerous asbestos in public buildings and merchant ships.

How much will this cost? OSHA projects that cutting the exposure limit to the lowest considered level -- 100,000 fibers per cubic meter -- could cost manufacturers more than $600 million in capital costs. This and other steps, OSHA recognizes, will inevitably raise the price of asbestos, force some companies to use alternative substances "now unregulated." These may have "adverse health or safety effects" and thus start a whole new regulatory process.

CPSC is only in the process of studying the costs of its proposed programs. As for EPA, its cost studies are not concluded but it recognizes that with any limitation on mining "many processors will be forced out of the asbestos business." The regulations, EPA says, will be established to give time "to convert to substitutes."