NINE YEARS AGO, the federal government began a program to reduce the lead in gasoline by stages. Starting with the product of the largest refiners, the amounts of lead allowed in gasoline have gradually been lowered. The last stage, application of the tightest standard--that is, the one permitting the least lead-- to the product of small, independently owned refineries was to have taken place later this year. But now the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to extend the October deadline and is considering whether to raise the allowed levels or rescind the lead standard altogether.

The impetus for this move comes from the independent oil refiners, who have opposed the lead standard from the beginning. For the first time in four administrations, they have found a receptive ear at the regulatory relief task force headed by Vice President Bush. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the refiners no longer argue that lead does not constitute a major health hazard. Their argument is now based on the inequities created by loopholes in existing law.

The exemption for small refineries also covers "blenders," businesses that are not bona fide refineries but that can make a profit by buying gasoline and mixing it with high concentrations of lead. The refiners' objection to this perversion of the law's intent is valid. But their proposed solution is itself perverse. The blenders' loophole will vanish automatically if the October deadline is observed. The refiners also object to the exemption allowed for imported gasoline, but that also could be easily corrected.

Finally, the refiners argue that leaded gasoline use will gradually decrease anyway, since most new cars require unleaded gasoline. But depending on what EPA decides to do--drop the standard or relax it for some or all refiners--the amount of lead in the air will certainly stop declining and, at least for some years, increase. There is little reason to think that resulting savings to oil refiners would be worth the added health risks.

Lead is one of the most potent poisons in the environment. The blood lead level considered by doctors to be safe has dropped by half in the last 20 years, and is still being lowered. Quite apart from the disastrous effects of acute lead poisoning, effects on adult reproductive systems are being found at levels not too much higher than those found to occur in average urban dwellers. The effects on children's mental development may include lifelong, irreparable damage. Recent studies, though not definitive, have turned up evidence that lead levels found in "average" urban children result in lower IQ and various kinds of behavior associated with learning defects.

On the basis of evidence available two years ago, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that "a serious effort should be made to reduce the baseline level of exposure to lead for the general population." Reducing lead in gasoline is the easiest and cheapest way to do that. EPA should look long and hard at this "relief" plan: relaxing the lead standard is not a safe or sensible thing to do.