By Jessica Sandler and Kate Willett, Ph.D.
If anyone out there is still wondering about the superiority of alternatives to animal tests, look no further than what is happening right now in the Gulf of Mexico. In its efforts to assist the devastated region, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is saving time, money and the lives of countless animals—those suffering in laboratories—by using efficient and effective non-animal methods to study the endocrine effects of chemical dispersants that could be used to clean up the oil gusher.
In fact, using non-animal testing methods is the only way that the EPA can get information about these chemicals in a short period of time—a few weeks as opposed to years. Without such sophisticated methods, the EPA would have to rely on crude and cruel animal toxicity tests that date back to the 1930s, and we would be waiting years to know anything at all about these chemicals. Considering the dire conditions of the region, waiting years for an answer is simply not an option.
The modern in vitro tests that the EPA has on hand to study the endocrine effects of eight oil spill dispersants are rapid and automated, in contrast to what the EPA calls “time consuming and expensive” animal tests. Testing one chemical on animals can cost millions, versus the EPA’s estimated $20,000 using in vitro testing. And while cost considerations are important, turn-around time is even more essential as ecosystems totter on the brink of disaster. The EPA states that, on average, it would take a researcher “eight hours a day, five days a week, for 12 years” to conduct these studies using traditional animal tests. The computer-driven in vitro tests deliver results in three days. The EPA has already completed the first round of toxicity testing on these dispersants.
The situation in the Gulf highlights the necessity of toxicology testing reform. Most of the tests used in standard chemical screening today were developed in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. They are heavily reliant on animals, are slow and costly and have yielded inaccurate information about the effects of chemicals on humans. And they have allowed dangerous chemicals such as benzene and arsenic to enter and remain on the market—even after millions of animals have been killed in decades of testing.
Our current system is overloaded and incapable of accurately screening the tens of thousands of chemicals reportedly in the environment already, with more entering every day. Scientists and government agencies are now recognizing that “it is simply not possible with all the animals in the world to go through new chemicals in the blind way that we have at the present time, and reach credible conclusions about the hazards to human health” (Dr. Joshua Lederberg, Nobel laureate in medicine).
Indeed, Congress and the EPA are now looking to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act to bring chemical regulation into the 21st century. The EPA and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) are among the scientific organizations calling for toxicity testing methods that are human-relevant, faster and cheaper and that use fewer or no animals.
In its 2007 report, the NAS confirmed that scientific advances can “transform toxicity testing from a system based on whole-animal testing to one founded primarily on in vitro (non-animal) methods.” Such an approach will improve efficiency, speed and prediction for humans while cutting costs and reducing animal suffering. As it should, the newly introduced legislation supports the continued development and implementation of this shift toward non-animal methodologies.
As the case in the Gulf demonstrates, non-animal testing is the stuff of science—not “science fiction” as critics often contend—and it is surely the future of ensuring chemical safety.
Jessica Sandler, director of PETA’s regulatory testing division, is a former government safety and health official. Dr. Kate Willett is PETA’s science policy adviser.
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