The American Medical Association yesterday backed away from what a spokesman called "imprudent language" in its recent resolution playing down the dangers of dioxin, and said there had been a "broad misunderstanding" of the organization's policy on the toxic substance.

The AMA created a sensation last week when its house of delegates approved a resolution accusing the news media of making dioxin the subject of a "witch hunt" through "hysterical malreporting" that "ignorantly damaged" the lives of residents of contaminated areas.

Yesterday, backpedaling furiously under sharp questioning from members of a House Science and Technology subcommittee, AMA representative Dr. John R. Beljan said he was "concerned that there is a broad misunderstanding of the position of the AMA."

"The AMA does not pooh-pooh dioxin," Beljan said. "I believe we have a potential health problem."

Beljan, a member of the AMA's council on scientific affairs, said the organization actually had adopted as policy only the resolution's recommendations for a public information campaign and an updating of the AMA's 1981 dioxin report.

The extreme language in the "whereas" clauses that preceded the recommendations, he said, reflects the opinion of the Missouri delegates who wrote it, and does not constitute official AMA policy.

"We regret some of the imprudent language of our Missouri colleagues," Beljan said.

"I really think you're being disingenuous," committee Chairman James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.) said. "This was disseminated as the policy of the AMA . . . . If one of my 14-year-old kids wrote such an intemperate, irresponsible and demagogic editorial in a high school newspaper, I would be embarrassed by it and I would whack their fannies."

"I believe even Congress has been known to use imprudent language," Beljan responded.

The dioxin resolution was approved June 22 in Chicago by voice vote of the AMA's 351-member house of delegates. It was introduced by an AMA member from St. Louis, in the heart of the eastern Missouri area where dioxin contamination has been identified at more than two dozen sites. The chemical also has been discovered in New Jersey and other states.

Widespread contamination in Missouri has been traced to waste oil sprayed on hundreds of miles of rural roads in the early '70s. The waste oil was tainted with dioxin, an unwanted byproduct of some chemical manufacturing processes that has been called the most toxic substance known. Concentrations of as little as several parts per million have induced cancer in laboratory animals.

The "whereas" section of the AMA resolution, however, stated that dioxin had not been found to be a serious health hazard to man. The statement produced an outcry among some scientists and public health officials, who accused the AMA of doing exactly what it had accused the news media of doing: leaping to conclusions on the basis of little scientific evidence.

"I trust that most doctors would protest if drugs were tested on their patients after these drugs were predicted to be unsafe in animal tests," said Dr. Anthony Robbins, president of the American Public Health Association.

"But the AMA suggests that people are still safe with dioxin despite laboratory evidence of cancer and reproductive damage. Can the American Medical Association want the American public to wait and count the bodies?"

Beljan and two other AMA representatives who appeared at yesterday's hearing conceded that a broad public statement clarifying the AMA position appeared to be in order, and assured the House panel that one will be forthcoming.

Acknowledging that the AMA does not have better information than any other scientific organization on the potential health hazards of dioxin, Beljan said, "We believe the conservative approach is better."

Other members of the panel questioned why Dr. George Bohigian, a newly elected member of the AMA's scientific affairs council and an ophthalmologist at Washington University in St. Louis, had sponsored the resolution.

Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.) said that Washington University recently received $30 million in financial support from the Monsanto Co., which produced Agent Orange for the Defense Department during the Vietnam war. Dioxin is present as a contaminant in Agent Orange and similar herbicides.

Beljan said he "did not see an inherent conflict of interest."

Bohigian, contacted last night, defended the language of the resolution he introduced in the AMA's house of delegates. He said the measure was "strongly worded because that was the feeling of the physicians of Missouri who had dealt with the problem of dioxin fear . . . firsthand."

On the conflict-of-interest question, Bohigian said: "I have absolutely no vested interest here . . . . I derive all my income from my private practice."

He said he receives no money from either Washington University or Monsanto, and that in any case the resolution came from a delegation of Missouri doctors, not from him alone.

A spokesman for Monsanto, Gerard Ingenthron, said there was no link between the company and the AMA resolution.