The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving to eliminate all animal testing of new chemicals by 2035. In its place will be cheap, quick and easy computer modelling, cultured cells and tiny invertebrates.
To achieve the shift only requires that the Agency cuts its funding for animal-based trials.
Because the information they yield is limited, these 'alternative' tests are normally used by scientists to indicate what further experiments are needed. Many scientists involved in the study of chemicals caution that test-tube experiments cannot completely replace mammals because, as the scientist who unravelled why PCB is so harmful pointed out: "you're going to miss all the different interactions that happen in a physiological system". You simply cannot replicate a whole body with isolated cells. The "EPA is well aware that these cells don't replicate human metabolism. So when it comes to bioactivation they're going to miss all that - and they know that."
Of particular concern is that animal testing, with clear endpoints, such as cancer or birth defects, is used by regulators to set 'safe' levels of human exposure to substances. The EPA's move will, therefore, leave it with no grounds to limit chemicals, and effectively means it can't regulate novel substances at all.
There are many examples of chemicals found to be harmful to life in ways only revealed by whole-animal dosing: the notorious PCB doesn't, in itself, cause harm but is activated by the body to become toxic; the insecticide chlorpyrifos specifically harms developing nerve cells; 1,3-butadiene gas (used to manufacture rubber) specifically induces reproductive and developmental problems; belated experiments on mice suggest vaping can cause lung cancer and possibly bladder cancer in susceptible individuals. Put another way without animal testing, people become the guinea pigs.
A knock-on effect of the new EPA policy is that specialist animal research labs will dwindle, and the expertise needed for animal testing will be lost.
Comment. This will impact on our ability to test GM foods which can only be studied by feeding them to an animal.
It would be nice to think that the EPA had found a conscience, and was acting out of concern for the hundreds of thousands of little animals whose world is a cage and whose life is a human experiment. In reality, the Agency is more likely bending to industry pressure. Animal testing is a huge drain on profits and a huge drag on getting new chemical products to market. The prospect of a system which actively avoids any chance of detecting harm is very attractive.
Is anything really going to change in America when the last nail is hammered into the coffin of animal testing?
In 2016, US law was updated to give the EPA the authority to require testing. But, three years later the Agency has not once used this power and seems to be avoiding it at all costs. Recently, the Trump administration made another update: the EPA is required to rely on non-animal tests when they're as good as or better than the animal research.
How you define, or who gets to define, 'as good as' or 'better than' isn't specified.
OUR COMMENTAs of December 2019, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report 54 deaths and more than 2,500 hospitalisations due to lung-injury from vaping. These problems are suspected to be linked to the unregulated additives in many of them. Such problems have not been seen in the US where Public Health England say "Unlike the US, all e-cigarette products in the UK are tightly regulated for quality and safety by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and they operate the Yellow Card Scheme, encouraging vapers to report any bad experiences".
All this could change in the event of a "free-trade" deal with America post-Brexit, when we will be subject to deliberately untested substances, many GM-derived, winging their way across the Atlantic unchecked.
Check out THE BREXIT RACE TO THE BOTTOM? - January 2020.
- Sharon Lerner, EPA move to phase out animal experiments could mean the end of toxics regulations, https://theintercept.com, 3.07.19
- CDC update on vaping and lung injury, www.cdc.gov, 19.12.19
- Vapour trail leads to danger, Metro, 10.10.19
- Emma Snaith, Vaping deaths: are e-cigarettes really safer than smoking tobacco?, www.independent.co.uk, 12.11.19
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