Infants in the United States are suffering from malnutrition and disease related to infant formula use problems such as those that led to marketing restrictions in Third World countries, according to a study by a San Francisco social advocacy law firm.

According to a report based on a year-long research project, problems related to misuse of infant formula are particularly acute among poor, non-English speaking and illiterate women -- the group that the study also found to be the heaviest users of formula.

"In the Los Angeles metroplitan area, where there are many large communities of recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America, infant health problems caused by misuse of formula have reached near-epidemic proportions," said the report by Public Advocates.

Pediatricians from several hospitals and clinics, quoted in the study, attribute a range of problems they see in children arriving at their facilities to misuse of formula, including failure to refrigerate or to follow the instructions on the bottles. Infants arrive with diarrhea, gastroenteritis, vomiting, dehydration and malnourishment, according to the study.

Dr. H.L. Kafka, chief of pediatrics for four Los Angeles County public health clinics in the San Fernando Valley, said that a new immigrant discharged from a hospital after the birth of her baby may decide to use ready-to-feed formula. "However, she has not been informed of the need for sterilization, that bottles and nipples need to be washed and boiled, and even is she has been instructed she does not have the facilities.

"The consequences are inevitable," he said in a personal statement submitted to Public Advocates. "We see very sasmll children in the hospital with severe diarrhea. . . On as few occasions when we sent the contents of the formula bottle to the bacteriology [lab] we grew a full spectrum of bacteria, usually found only in stools."

The law firm plans to present a petition today to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Defense and the Agriculture Department calling for changes in labeling and marketing infant formula and for more widespread information about breastfeeding in the United States in response to problem outlined by the study.

"For the majority of mothers in this country who live in homes with sanitized water, electricity and refrigeration, and who read English," following instructions about how to use infant formula "is not a big problem," the report conceded. But it added that "statistics show that while formula use is declining among the middle class, it is actually still on the rise among low-income minority groups, and especially among recent immigrants to this country, who regard bottle-feeding as a step up toward affluence and a better way of life."

The medical establishment, including hospitals that use corporation-supplied infant formula in their own nurseries and send new mothers home with gift packs of formula, help encourage that trend, the study said.

An official of Abbott Laboratories, whose Ross subsidiary produces Similac -- the most widely used formula -- said that he company had not seen the study and was unable to comment on its conclusions.

Public Advocates is a 10-year-old law firm that has been funded by the Ford Foundation until this year.

The House subcommittee on oversight and investigations will hold hearings today on marketing of infant formula.