Industry released more than 700,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the Washington area's environment in 1988, but the region still ranked last in the nation, a national civic group reported yesterday.

Ten local companies accounted for 84 percent of the reported pollution, according to the group, Citizen Action, basing its figures on company reports to the Environmental Protection Agency. The chemicals used by the companies mainly are cleaning solvents and degreasers.

Toxic pollution of the city and seven of its surrounding jurisdictions in 1988 was dwarfed by the 34 million pounds of air pollutants released that year by only one Virginia factory, the now-closed Avtex rayon plant in Front Royal.

The company releasing the most pollution locally was Automata of Reston, a circuit board manufacturer that released 122,500 pounds of dichloromethane, trichloroethane and glycol ethers from its plant, Citizen Action said. The first chemical is linked with cancer, and the second is blamed by environmental groups for eroding the planet's protective ozone layer.

Automata spokesman Tony Fullerton said the Reston facility closed in 1988 and moved to Sterling because it needed more space. The company has stopped using glycol ethers and is working to find substitutes for the other two chemicals, which are used as cleaning solvents, he said.

Automata's Sterling plant was the site of a 1988 explosion that killed one worker, injured 15 and resulted in safety citations and fines against the company. The company said the accident resulted when an employee mistakenly mixed two incompatible chemicals.

Robert M. Brandon, Citizen Action vice president, warned that many of the chemicals being re-"We are calling on toxic polluters to agree to reduce their emissions by 50 percent over the next five years."

-- Robert M. Brandon

leased into the local environment are linked with cancer, birth defects or other health risks.

"We are calling on toxic polluters to agree to reduce their emissions by 50 percent over the next five years," he said.

Officials of several of the companies listed emphasized that their chemical use is legal and that they consider it safe. Some said they are trying to switch to less powerful chemicals, which is exactly what environmental groups said they hoped would happen when figures on chemical use by industry were first made public two years ago.

Citizen Action said the District area ranked last overall because it has few heavy industries.

The group's statistics came from reports to the EPA on industry's legal use of 322 toxic chemicals in the city, Alexandria, and the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Howard, Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Prince George's. The EPA began requiring the annual reports from the nation's major manufacturers in 1988, to be submitted each July based on the previous year's chemical use.

Howard County ranked first in the area, with 340,000 pounds of chemicals released. Fairfax was second with 260,000 pounds, and Prince George's was third with 65,000.

Citizen Action said its report reflected only a small slice of the area's pollution because it did not include the leading cause of dirty air here -- cars -- or other sources such as utilities, gasoline stations, small employers and incinerators.

Company.................. 1988 Amount........Primary Pollutant

Automata, Reston..........122,500 lbs.........Dichloromethane,

................................trichloroethane, glycol ethers

General Electric Co.,

Columbia........................ 82,608 lbs..........Solvents

Maryland and Virginia Milk

Producers, Laurel................ 81,464 lbs...........Nitric

......................................... andphosphoric acids

Morning Star Foods Inc. ......... 80,193 lbs..........Ammonia

Davis & Hemphill, Elkridge....... 60,670 lbs...Trichloroethane

Including two High's Dairy plants in Laurel and Embassy Dairy in

Alexandria

SOURCE: Citizens Action