Cancer-causing industrial chemicals seep through most protective gloves within minutes and threaten the health of nearly 5 million workers, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

The findings in two recent studies have alarmed NIOSH officials and led to a meeting last month at its offices in Rockville with members of the protective-clothing industry.

"They seemed very receptive, but also very reserved, waiting to see what we would do," Dr. Jon R. May, special assistant for testing at NIOSH's Center for Disease Control, said yesterday. "We see the problem as very major, and the government at this time doesn't have the resources to do the job singlehandedly."

One of the studies, done for NIOSH by Robert W. Weeks Jr. and M.J. McLeod of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, tested 11 types of work gloves by soaking them in chemicals for varying periods. It found that all but one glove, the most expensive and least used, were readily permeated by a group of industrial solvents, cleaning fluids and fumigants called chlorinated ethanes. Only four gloves lasted 20 minutes or more, while four others soaked through in less than three minutes.

The chemicals have been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

The same study checked the gloves' resistance to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a cancer-causing lubricant and heat-transfer fluid often found in old electrical transformers. Again, all the gloves but one were soaked in less than three minutes, six of them in less than one minute.

The best glove material, called Viton, costs 10 to 14 times as much as the other types and is little used, May said.

"Protective garment material which is commercially available in the United States is, generally speakikng, not satisfactory for worker protection," the study concluded.

The gloves tested were different kinds of rubber and latex gloves, including Teflon varieties, layered gloves and coated kinds of nylon, with and without inner-support material, the study said.

Paul Schultz of the Work Gloves Manufacturers Association in Libertyville, Ill., said work gloves were a $542 million industry in 1979 and that industrial gloves make up 10 to 15 percent of the market. He said he had not seen the studies and could not comment on them.

Another Los Alamos study involved benzene, a solvent linked to cancer, and found that of 13 gloves tested, none was completely impervious. All the gloves but the Viton, Teflon and polyvinyl chloride types were permeated in two to 11 minutes.

May said he knew of no studies directly linking chemical exposure through work gloves to any human illness "but we suspect there may well be problems." He said industry spokesmen were concerned about ways to correlate their tests, done differently, with the Los Alamos findings.

Tony Mazzochi, vice president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, said he was not surprised by the findings. "The empirical evidence was always there," he said. "These jobs are cancer pits." He said his union would study the reports with an eye toward using them in contract and safety negotiations.