WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Environmental Protection Agency has a message for summertime barbecuers: Its proposal to toughen air pollution standards won't douse their backyard grills.

In the heated debate over the EPA proposal, opponents have charged that the outdoor grill may become a casualty in the name of cleaning up the air.

And while backyard chefs may pay little attention to statistics on smog-causing ozone and fine particulates, they perk right up when someone suggests they may lose their outdoor grills.

But no such attack on barbecuing actually is being considered by the EPA, or by any other federal officials as far as anybody can determine. The proposal going through final review at the EPA and White House calls for further reducing the amount of ozone-causing chemicals in the air and for the first time regulating microscopic soot, much of which comes from burning.

``EPA is not contemplating nor have we ever contemplated restrictions on the use of charcoal and gas grills,'' EPA Administrator Carol Browner wrote a congressman recently, suggesting any state or local attempt to curb barbecues would ``defy common sense.''

Under the EPA proposal, states would have to develop pollution control plans to meet the new standards, in many cases over a 10- to 15-year period. Factories, industrial plants and coal-burning electric power plants as well as automobiles spew millions of tons of such pollution into the air.

And no one denies barbecues also pollute.

But senior EPA officials, health experts, and many state environmental control officials say that to put controls on backyard grilling would amount to committing political hara-kiri over a hibachi.

State officials also have little desire to take on the barbecue crowd.

``There are a lot of things we would look at before we went to that extent,'' concedes Kenneth Silfven, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. ``Nobody's out there eyeing the backyard grill.''

``There are certainly a lot of things you could do that would reduce emissions a lot more than (curbing) barbecues,'' agrees Bill Kelly, a spokesman for California's South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has some of the country's stiffest air-pollution controls.

California often is cited as the state where the barbecue already is under fire.

In 1990, charcoal-lighting products were ordered reformulated to cut emissions of smog-causing volatile organic compounds in the Los Angeles basin. But Kelly said manufacturers met the new standards quickly ``and the area didn't miss a beat ... with people still barbecuing.''

Nevertheless, he says, he's not surprised the barbecue issue is being raised again. ``It captivates the imagination. It connotes Big Brotherism,'' he says.

Environmentalists say the barbecue talk amounts to a scare tactic that diverts attention from industrial polluters, which release nearly 23 million tons of volatile organic compounds annually compared with 14,500 tons from barbecues.

It would require ``every household in America barbecuing 14 hours a day, every day of the year'' to foul the air as much as industry and automobiles, says the Washington-based Environmental Information Center.

But that doesn't mean barbecues are protected, argues Wayne Brough, director of research for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a pro-business, less-government advocacy group that has run radio ads suggesting the EPA rule might lead to a ban not only on barbecues, but also on Fourth of July fireworks.

``If jurisdictions don't have enough other sources of ... (pollution) to reduce then who's to say barbecues won't be on some bureaucrat's list of banned behavior,'' Brough says.