Scotchgard fabric protector spray could cause severe respiratory problems and even death if misused, its manufacturer has said.

Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. said on Tuesday that it had informed the Environmental Protection Agency last fall that at least seven fatalities were caused by the "intentional abuse" of Scotchgard over the past 20 years. Scotchgard is used by consumers to waterproof clothing and as a stain repellant on furniture.

The seven who died, including at least four teen-agers, had inhaled the spray from plastic bags, a 3M company spokesman said. "They were deliberately seeking some kind of a high," said the spokesman, who added that he knew of no lawsuits related to the aerosol product.

However, Frank Kover, chief of EPA's chemical screening branch, said that possibly even under typical use conditions, the spray might pose a hazard to some consumers.

Consumers who follow label instructions are not in danger of toxicity, the 3M spokesman said. "It is abuse of the product that causes death," he said.

Nevertheless, the giant St. Paul company, best known for its Scotch brand tape products, toughened the warnings on its Scotchgard cans last fall and is continuing to test the product. The labels on the aerosol cans now warn consumers to wait an hour before using a second can of the spray if more than one is required, rather than waiting 30 minutes as the label said before.

The new Scotchgard label also contains the word "danger" in large letters instead of "warning," and advises against applying the product in a room or other confined area without ventilation, the company said.

Scotchgard is also used in the apparel and furniture manufacturing industries, but the company said that it is not in the aerosol form that might pose a health hazard. The pressurized aerosol cans contain a mixture of the Scotchgard formula and a solvent, 1,1,1-trichloroethane.

Joseph Merenda, director of the EPA Office of Toxic Substances, said the agency is conducting a scientific investigation into the toxic effects of the solvent when combined with the resin involved.

Tens of millions of Scotchgard units have been sold since it was first put on the market in 1960, but new federally recommended tests performed last year indicated a higher toxicity than had been previously discovered, the company said.

The company's report to EPA said that new tests indicated that prolonged exposure to Scotchgard fumes could kill small animals. Laboratory rats and quail exposed to the fumes for four-hour periods did not survive, 3M's spokesman said. When the firm notified EPA of those test results, it also disclosed the seven fatalities. 3M hadn't reported the deaths earlier because it wasn't required to do so under federal law, the company spokesman said.

The aerosol sector of the Scotchgard protector sales represents a relatively minor portion of the total business of the company, which had sales of $7.7 billion last year, the company spokesman said. 3M also manufactures sandpapers, abrasives, adhesives and floor maintenance products.