The government's announcement that it does not plan to put new limits on sulfur dioxide emissions is being decried as "probably the most outrageous example of this administration's failure to protect the public from a clear health threat."

Environmental and medical groups are urging the government to set a one-hour limit for the emissions, pointing to studies that show asthmatics suffer breathing problems when exposed to short-term increases in levels of the pollutant produced mainly by coal-fired power plants and smelters.A new limit also would have a major impact on acid rain, the Sierra Club contends, by sharply reducing the total output of sulfur dioxide, a major contributor to the atmospheric problem. The environmental club claims new controls would cut emissions by 6 million tons per year, about 25 percent.

Despite such pleas, the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that it would act against the advice of its own Clean Air Science Advisory Council, arguing that the health effects are relatively minor and current sulfur dioxide regulations are adequate to protect the public.

"It's a tough call," said J. Craig Potter, assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation. "But we believe the existing standards protect as well as we need to protect. You never get 100 percent protection."

The agency maintained there is "no convincing evidence" that short-term exposure to heightened sulfur dioxide levels causes any long-term health effects. The problems for asthmatics, officials said, appear short-lived and reversible and, at lower sulfur dioxide concentrations, similar to what many already experience when they exercise or come in contact with other irritants.

Potter and other EPA officials denied they considered potential costs for industry in making their decision. They said they weighed all health concerns against difficulties caused by "interrupting an ongoing regulatory program."

"The question," Potter said, "is do you want to shake that all up?"

Moreover, the EPA stressed its decision was not final and it would consider public comment on an alternative proposal to set a new one-hour standard of 0.4 parts-per-million for sulfur dioxide.

"We expect considerable public comment on that option and are especially mindful of the uncertainties in available information and the diversity of opinion as to the possible significance of short-term exposures," Potter said.

Opponents immediately made their opinions known, attacking the EPA and saying 30 million Americans with asthma and other respiratory problems would suffer.

"This is probably the most outrageous example of this administration's failure to protect the public from a clear health threat," charged Bob Yuhnke, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.

"This decision is an added insult to the acid rain injuries already inflicted on us and our Canadian neighbors," added J. Michael McCloskey, chairman of the Sierra Club.

The Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, praised the EPA decision, saying sulfur dioxide levels already have been cut by 37 percent since 1977. The institute also said a one-hour standard would have amounted to a "back door" approach to acid rain control that would cost $5 billion in new pollution control costs annually.

President Reagan has maintained any regulatory action on acid rain would be premature at this point. Administration officials contend scientific studies on the impact of acid rain on streams, lakes and trees are not conclusive.