The publicity about the threat posed to towns in the Kanawha River valley by a nearby plant producing the gas that killed more than 2,000 people in India largely ignored the hazardous chemicals regularly released into the air here.

"This is not a case of 'can it happen here?' It happens here every day," said Perry Bryant, environmental coordinator of the West Virginia Citizens Action Group. "We live in a long, narrow valley which traps and concentrates these pollutants without dispersal possibilities found elsewhere," he said.

Bryant said state health department records show that between 1968 and 1972, Kanawha County residents experienced a respiratory cancer rate 25 percent above the national average. Between 1973 and 1977 the rate was 21 percent above normal and, in 1982, a neighborhood across the river from Union Carbide Corp.'s South Charleston plant recorded a cancer rate twice the national rate.

Bryant cited those figures at a Dec. 14 congressional hearing at Institute, W.Va., and asked, "Is there anyone in this room who honestly believes that these abnormally high levels of cancer and the discharge of 737 tons of chemical pollutants each year are not related?"

There are nine major and several smaller chemical plants in the Charleston area, which calls itself "The Chemical Capital." It became the focus of national attention because Union Carbide's plant at Institute, six miles east of here, is the only place in the United States where methyl isocyanate is manufactured. It was a leak of that gas at Carbide's plant in Bhopal, India, that caused the worst industrial accident in history.

Methyl isocyanate is one of 78 toxic substances, including at least seven suspected carcinogens, emitted into the atmosphere at the Institute plant. Other plants in the area spew an even greater variety of pollutants into the air: Carbide's plant at South Charleston lists 140; Monsanto's at Nitro, 90, and Du Pont's at Belle, 79.

According to the most recent emissions inventories reported to the West Virginia Air Pollution Control Commission, the nine major chemical plants that sprawl along a 25-mile stretch of the valley from Nitro to Belle emitted 44,000 tons of chemicals into the air in 1981.

But numbers do not tell the whole story. It takes only a few drops of methyl isocyanate to kill, while large amounts of carbon monoxide, for example, can enter the air over time without lethal effect.

What no one is sure of is the effect of mixing all those chemicals in the air.

A Charleston Gazette poll of 497 Kanawha County residents found that 62 percent said they thought that there could be a disaster here on the scale of the one in India. And 77.9 percent said they did not think that they have been adequately informed about measures to take in the event of a serious gas leak.

State Sen. Tod J. Kaufman (D-Kanawha), in a letter to Union Carbide board chairman Warren Anderson, urged Union Carbide and other chemical firms with plants here "to reveal . . . identifiable air contaminants . . ., the chemicals' effects and the routes of exposure. Without your help, we have no way of finding this information out." He also sought assurance that shipments of methyl isocyanate rejected by Brazil and France will not be returned to the Institute plant. Those shipments are scheduled to be converted to a pesticide at a plant in Woodbine, Ga.

"We have lived with so many trade-offs because our people needed jobs," Kaufman wrote. "We have trusted Carbide to prevent disasters, but you have not trusted our people enough to tell us what you are making, how we can protect ourselves and that the MIC methyl isocyanate will not come back here. We deserve that much."

Shortly after a yellow cloud wafted around her hilltop house here in April, Suzzanne Tenkhoff organized the Nitro Citizens Action Committee and began a door-to-door canvass. Four of the valley's nine biggest chemical plants -- Monsanto, FMC, Allied and Fike -- are in Nitro, named for nitrocellulose, an ingredient in munitions produced here in World War I. The federal government put up the world's largest munitions factory here on 1,800 acres of farmland, creating a boom town that disappeared as fast as it materialized. Most of the chemical plants came in the 1920s, when the land, along with 3,400 buildings, was sold at bargain rates by the government.

Tenkhoff said she thinks that many of her neighbors misunderstand her group's objectives.

"They say, 'There's nothing we can do about it,' or 'They the chemical companies wouldn't do anything to hurt us.' Many don't want to question the companies, because they put food on our tables and clothes on our backs," Tenkhoff said.

"This is not an effort to shut down plants," said her husband, Michael, a cable splicer for the telephone company. "But there are rules, laws regulating emissions that are not being enforced."

Most employes of the plants who agreed to be interviewed give high marks to their employers. Many, like Ray Helmick, who installs heavy equipment at Union Carbide's Institute plant, contend that the Bhopal disaster "got blown out of proportion."

Helmick said "most of us were brought up in the valley" and have respect for chemicals. He said he thinks that the methyl isocyanate leak was "a little more than they Indian workers could handle. Probably somebody panicked."

But not all of the area's 10,000 chemical workers are as sanguine as Helmick. Several have joined Tenkhoff's group, although they ask to remain anonymous.

A worker at Du Pont, who asked that his name not be used "because they clip the papers," said safety conditions at his plant "have been deteriorating. It's not even near fail-safe." He said he thinks that "potentially bad situations relate to profit and safety ledgers competing with each other."

He said preventive maintenance has given way to "fixing things after they break" at the plant, which was built in 1929, though not much of the original structure remains. As the plants age, they become less profitable, he said, adding that Du Pont's Belle plant has been operating at 43 to 62 percent of capacity the last two years. In volume, Du Pont is the biggest polluter in the valley. Its 1981 inventory report showed 13,150 tons of pollution from 79 chemicals.

Du Pont's plant manager at Belle, R.D. Porter, said there has been "a continuing upgrading maintenance program at the plant. The level of maintenance is significantly better than it has been for a long, long time."

In an area where many are out of work, "no one who is making $10 to $13 an hour for work anyone could do for $5 an hour less is going to complain too much," said the Du Pont employe who asked not to be identified. He is involved in an effort to unionize Du Pont workers at Belle (most of the chemical plants in the valley are unionized), but money is not an issue, he said. What is, he said, are grievance procedures, a lot of which are related to safety.

The frequency at which fumes are released in the plant has increased, he said, and now occur "three or four times a month," often involving formaldehyde or some other chemical "that takes your breath away." When workers asked their foreman why there was no fume alert, he said, they are told, "We'll get back to you," but added that "they never do." He said he suspects that there is a "quota" on the number of incidents that should occur and that supervisors whose departments have reached the maximum will not report more.

Porter said that suspicion "simply is not true."

In 1982, the worker continued, there was a chlorine leak at Diamond Shamrock, whose plant adjoins Du Pont's, and although "they evacuated people at Diamond Shamrock and in town, we had to continue working. That was a real and present danger." But plant manager Porter said "appropriate action" was taken and that, as a result, there were no injuries, at either plant or in town.

Bryant, whose group is a nonprofit, public-interest organization with 40,000 members in the state, is concerned that concentration on the dangers of methyl isocyanate will obscure wider problems involving the manufacture, storage and emission of a variety of toxic substances through plant vents and their wastewater treatment systems.

For example, Bryant said, chlorine is discharged into the air by six plants and phosgene, the mustard gas of World War I, by two plants, and "nobody but company officials knows how much . . . is stored in the valley or what safety devices are in place." He said neither the state air pollution control agency nor the federal Environmental Protection Agency has "any real information" on these facts.

Residents of the area are "forced to assume the risk" that goes with the production and storage of such chemicals and "have no way whatsoever to obtain information" about safety precautions, Bryant said. He noted that the federal government regulates hazardous waste but extremely hazardous chemicals are virtually unregulated.

"The distinction between hazardous waste and hazardous substances makes no sense in terms of human health," Bryant said. "Both are toxic; both can cause catastrophic illness or death."

Of 37 pollutants under study by EPA for possible addition to its list of five regulated pollutants, 16 are routinely discharged in the Kanawha River valley. According to the 1981 emissions inventory, they accounted for more than 767 tons of emissions that year. Five of the 16 -- acrylonitrile, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, dimethyl nitrosamine and formaldehyde -- are listed as carcinogens by the National Toxicology Program.

One of the plants whose odors drift toward Tenkhoff's house is Fike Chemical. A saying around town, she said, is that "one day that Elmer Fike is going to blow us all up."

"I hear that all the time," Fike said, "but we don't work with anything that dangerous." Fike said that in the 21 years since he left Monsanto to start his company, there has been only one partial disability to a Fike worker.

He said his 45-employe plant, which makes pharmaceutical and agricultural chemicals, is equipped with scrubbers and vents to block odors from getting into the air. "But once in a while something gets out of hand. Odors are an indicator that we're not doing our job right," he said. "But the only way to keep from having any problem is not to do make anything."

Carl G. Beard II, director of the state control commission, said that while many of the compounds his office deals with in the Kanawha Valley are potentially lethal, including hydrogen cyanide, chlorine, phosgene and fuming sufuric acid, most of the complaints he gets are about malodorous emissions. Many callers say the odors are worst at night and on weekends, when Beard's small staff is not working.

"While we have made progress in reduction of these emissions over the years," he said, "we are far from where we would like to be."

The 400 or so complaints on file with Beard describe such things as burning eyes and noses, coughing, choking, sore throats, difficulty in breathing, headaches and students becoming ill at Nitro Junior High.

Tenkhoff said chemical company executives say "you can't do anything about it. And people fear that if they speak up, the plants might move. But I don't think other towns would let them in if they didn't clean up their act."