WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration Tuesday asked chemical companies to test thousands of common chemicals and disclose their toxicity, threatening to require the tests if the companies do not comply voluntarily.
Vice President Al Gore proposed the idea at a small rally in a picnic area in Washington's Rock Creek Park, where he also signaled a partisan political tone for this week's observances of Earth Day by accusing Republicans in Congress of "cozying up to the worst of the polluters."
Emphasizing two of the administration's favorite environmental themes -- protecting children from pollution and expanding the public's right to know about emissions of potentially harmful pollutants -- Gore said that testing chemicals and disclosing their toxicity would serve both purposes.
Under the administration's plan, industry would run a standard set of tests on each of about 3,000 chemicals that are produced in amounts of more than a million pounds a year. Fewer than a tenth of these chemicals have been fully tested to date, officials said.
The chemical industry said Tuesday that it would voluntarily accelerate the pace of this kind of testing, submitting as many as 100 new chemicals per year to the tests by the year 2003. But environmental groups said that was not fast enough.
Gore also told the Environmental Protection Agency to consider additional testing for chemicals that children are most likely to be exposed to, and for chemicals that tend to build up in bodily tissues.
Officials said the agency already had the authority to require the chemical tests under existing laws and would not have to seek congressional approval.
Gore lashed out at the Republican leadership in Congress, which he said was "up to its anti-environmental games, tempted, as they are, to do what the large polluters are asking them to do."
"They are helping the polluters and hurting children and families," he said to a group made up largely of children from neighborhood schools. "If they don't learn that soon, they will learn it suddenly," he said, calling for voters in November to "get people in there who will vote to clean up the environment."
Gore complained that the Senate, in its budget resolution, had cut much of the financing for several of the administration's environmental initiatives, including those dealing with parks, clean water and energy conservation tax credits.
Environmental groups welcomed the administration's position on chemical testing. "Even basic health-effects tests are missing from the public record for most of the top-selling public chemicals," said Fred Krupp, the executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, which called attention to the problem in a report last July.
Fred Webber, the chief executive officer of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, said his industry group was already working closely with both the environmental agency and Krupp's group to increase the rate of testing and expand public access to the information.
He said it would cost the industry an estimated $26 million per year to test 100 chemicals annually. But Krupp said that at the industry's proposed rate it would take two decades to complete the screening tests, and urged the companies to act by the year 2000.
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