Tired of waiting for federal standards to restrict radiation emitted from television and radio antennas, local governments are weaving a regulation patchwork around the country.
Public concerns about perceived hazards have caused several local governments to develop their own standards, without federal resources or conclusive scientific knowledge.
''Four hundred little brushfires'' is the way one broadcast industry official laments the developing situation. Jurisdictions as disparate as Massachusetts; Multnomah County, Ore., which includes Portland; and the town of Onondaga, N.Y., restrict radiation levels or ban construction of new broadcast and radar antennas.
The question of whether non-ionizing radiation, as it is known, is hazardous to the environment has been raised by an increasingly concerned audience in the last decade. There is controversy about the effects of non-ionizing radiation on humans, animals, and plant life. Some scientists say that non-ionizing radiation can produce heat exhaustion, but only at much higher levels than the public is subjected to.
Others say that some forms of low-level, long-lasting radiation may have much more subtle effects, including changes in the hormonal, immune, and cardio-vascular systems.
Although scientists argue about the biological effects, they agree about several physical characteristics of non-ionizing radiation. They say that it is totally unlike nuclear radiation. Scientists also say that humans might be particularly susceptible to broadcast waves, because of a correlation between the length of the waves and the human body.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been measuring and studying the effects of non-ionizing radiation since 1972. According to Norbert Hankin, an environmental scientist with the agency's radiation program, the EPA recently started to draft radiation guidelines.
The EPA expects the guidelines to be developed by September 1984, Mr. Hankin says. Following presidential approval, they should be adopted by federal agencies that oversee broadcast operations.
Some local radiation control officials say they are disturbed the EPA is taking so long to develop guidelines. They say the date has been postponed several times.
''When are those (guidelines) coming out?'' asks Dr. Marshall Parrott, Oregon's radiation control manager. ''I got cyanotic (blue in the face) or a while waiting for those.''
Hankin says the EPA's guidelines have been slow in coming because of many necessary reviews and changes. ''Things just take time,'' he says.
After citizens in the Syracuse suburb of Onondaga learned in 1979 that the federal guidelines were not forthcoming in the next year, they decided to take matters into their own hands.
First the town board evaluated available scientific findings. Disturbed by the controversy among the research community, they banned construction of new antennas for two years, says Raymond D'Agostino, the town's attorney.
Now the Onondaga town board will decide if they should further immerse themselves in the complicated broadcast radiation studies. At a town meeting Aug. 16 the board will choose either to develop local standards regulating how much radiation can be emitted or to continue the ban.
Mr. D'Agostino says that town officials decided to take action after they learned EPA guidelines would not be issued unitl later this year or in early 1983.
''I thought the feds had more wherewithal to develop standards than a little town in New York,'' says D'Agostino. ''Unfortunately, I guess because of the Reagan administration . . . the EPA is much slower.''
EPA's Hankin denies that the Reagan administration has slowed the guidelines process.
The precedent for setting standards is scanty. D'Agostino says that if Onondaga decides to develop regulations, officials will consider the broadcast radiation standards recently recommended for occupational workers by the independent American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
As some other state and local governments are doing, Onondaga may tighten the ANSI standards. Larry Epstein, a Multnomah Country lawyer who recently worked on the county's standards, says this reduction is a ''guesstimate'' to compensate for continuous public exposure.
Larry Patrick, vice-president of National Association of Broadcasters, says some standards would be hard to measure. He says he worries that different regulations scattered around the country would hurt all broadcasters, from local stations to group-owned networks.