As if dodging bullets or flames isn't enough of a hazard for police and firefighters, now there's the acidic automobile that, by touch, can lead to amputation.

Science fiction? Just about.A hazard alert making the rounds of the nation's police and fire departments warns officers and firefighters how to literally save their own skin by not touching any car involved in a fire.

The alert warns of a new type of material being used by automakers that is so caustic when burned that any contact with human flesh will result in the area of contact having to be removed.

The alert was sent out to all Chicago members of the Fraternal Order of Police last week and as a result is making the rounds among suburban forces as FOP members notify friends and relatives.

The bulletin to FOP members states it's being passed on from a bulletin issued by the Alabama State Fire Marshal's office and reads:

"The major auto manufacturers are now using a new type of material, `Fluorolastomec,' in the construction of late model automobiles. When this material is burned, a highly caustic acid is formed. If the acid gets on human flesh, the concentrated area must be amputated.

"Apparently, the acid is so corrosive that no other medical treatment, short of amputation, is effective in removing the acid. The Florida State Fire Marshal's office verified the accuracy of the (Alabama) bulletin. Fluorolastomec or veton was carcinogenic and could also be hazardous if its vapor was inhaled. The acid remains hazardous for a minimum of two years.

"They (Florida fire marshal) could not relate which manufacturers are using the material or which cars are being built with this new material. Everyone should be made aware of this hazardous situation and to use extreme caution when inspecting all burned vehicles until we establish which vehicles are being manufactured with this dangerous type plastic."

A call to the Alabama State Fire Marshal's office was greeted with hearty laughter when relating the alert.

The officer answering the phone said, "I don't know how this got started . . . . If such a situation existed there would be a lot of one-arm doctors and mechanics running around this country."

The Florida State Fire Marshal's office referred all callers to Du Pont Co. and a special hotline, where spokeswoman Diane Currie tries to set the record straight for the chemical company.

"I've been talking with police departments, fire departments, insurance companies, automakers and state fire marshals about this for weeks," Currie said.

"We aren't sure where this started, but it's not true," she said. "These bulletins weren't verified by anyone because the words are misspelled. It's not a `fluorolastomec,' it's called a fluorelastomer. And Du Pont's trademark name is Viton.

"We've been able to trace some of this back to an insurance company and an independent insurance investigation company both in Florida, but don't know where they got it," she said.

"In 1981 a case was reported by National Nuclear Corp. in England. They were conducting destruction and decomposition tests on fluorelastomers. An engineer grabbed the material with a bare hand, didn't perform any first aid, which meant washing his finger off with water, and had part of his finger amputated. We think this is where the whole thing may have started," she said.

Currie said fluorelastomers are heat resistant and have been used for about 20 years in such applications as engine gaskets and seals. About a half pound is found in the typical car.

"About the only truth in the alert is that when fluorelastomers decompose (such as in a fire), a hydrogen fluoride acid is formed," she said. "To be harmed by the acid you'd have to touch the fluorelastomer part with your bare hand. That wouldn't be easy, considering the size and location of the parts used in the car and assuming the parts wouldn't have been already flooded (diluted) with water in trying to put the car fire out."

Currie said anyone who may have questions can contact the Du Pont hotline at (800) 441-7111.