Whatever health risks electric blankets, power lines and computer screens may pose for the general public, it is now clear that they can raise the blood pressure of federal officials and may lead to elevated bile levels within certain agencies.

The cause of these symptoms is an improbably controversial draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency on the potential cancer hazards of exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs), which have been tentatively linked to leukemia and other diseases in children and to increased adult cancer rates in certain occupations. The report, originally scheduled for release Nov. 27, was issued last Friday, after a top-level compromise ended weeks of delay caused by bickering between the White House science adviser's office and the EPA.

The study's contents, which are incontestably circumspect, were not at issue. The squabble centered on the specific phrasing of certain sentences in the executive summary.

White House science adviser D. Allan Bromley, with the support of Assistant Secretary for Health James Mason, objected that the summary's language was insufficiently skeptical about the effects of EMFs and could be needlessly alarming, especially to parents whose children may be exposed to such fields.

As a result, last week several frustrated EPA staff members -- including the report's project manager -- publicly accused the administration of heavy-duty foot-dragging and deliberately trying to hold up publication.

To some, this dispute might seem disproportionately fierce, since a virtually identical preliminary version of the report was distributed in June and widely reported in the press. And the study is not the official, final version, but only an "external review draft," which will be given to a score of EPA-designated reviewers for comment.

Yet the report -- whose subject has become one of the hottest policy potatoes on the federal plate -- might still be languishing in interoffice limbo were it not for last-minute negotiations that produced a two-stage compromise.

First, the report's contents will be evaluated by another review panel named by the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering and Technology, which Bromley oversees. Second, a special "Note to Reviewers" has been attached to the report, warning them that there has been "disagreement among the reviewers from various agencies about the weight of evidence and the conclusions presented in the executive summary" and that the draft "should not be construed as representing agency policy or position." In addition, the note informs the reviewers, presumably chosen for their expertise, that "there are insufficient data to determine whether or not a cause-and-effect relationship exists" between EMFs and certain kinds of cancer.

This compromise allowed the report to be released "as written," though it had already been through numerous changes. An early draft that circulated inside the EPA suggested that EMFs might be classified as a probable carcinogen, but agency reviewers quashed the idea. And in the past nine months, the language had been revised several times in consultation with EMF experts and federal officials. "That's the kind of problem you're going to have any time that you try to get a six-page executive summary out of a 381-page document," said Erich Bretthauer, EPA's assistant administrator for research and development and the author of a cover letter.

In its present form, the summary states that "several studies showing leukemia, lymphoma and cancer of the nervous system in children exposed to magnetic fields from residential 60-Hz electrical power distribution systems, supported by similar findings in adults in several occupational studies also involving electrical power frequency exposures, show a consistent pattern of response which suggests a causal link."

This is still enough to rankle many skeptics, notably physicists (Bromley's specialty is physics) who believe that the minuscule currents associated with home and office electromagnetic fields have insignificant -- or at least unproven -- effects on the human body. And it is more than enough to worry businesses, builders and others pondering the prospect of lawsuits involving the kind of EMFs to which nearly every American is exposed daily.

Both sides profess themselves pleased with the negotiated outcome.

Bromley said that "there was absolutely no attempt to suppress or delay the report. The only question was whether the report might be open to very reasonable misinterpretation that would raise unnecessary fears."

His chief concern, he said, was that the document be free of statements that "could easily be taken out of context and interpreted to mean that the federal government now believes that a causal relationship has been established" between EMFs and childhood cancer, "whereas it clearly hasn't. Correlations are in no sense the same as causal relationships."

The report, he said, "is perfectly fine, in that all it does is synthesize the results of a whole set of studies that are not of very high quality on the whole."

At the EPA, "We have, in response to {White House} concerns and criticisms, changed the report and executive summary not one whit," agency Administrator William K. Reilly said, "in order to respect the integrity of the process." However, he called the objections of Bromley and Mason "very fair" and "entirely consistent with their responsibilities."

Reilly initiated the request for a second review panel, he said, because "EPA has very meager resources devoted to research on EMF" and because other federal agencies "have bigger budgets and as big a stake in the issue. The scope of the whole question suggested to me the need for interagency action with a larger deployment of forces appropriate to the importance of this question."

He did not object to the cover letter because "the research is very clear in stating it does not find a causal connection."

The next stage in the embattled report's progress will occur Jan. 14 when the EPA's Science Advisory Board reviewers convene for what promises to be a lively open meeting.