After 40 years, Congress has voted to upgrade our federal law governing oversight over tens of thousands of chemicals. The negotiated proposal, expected to be signed by the president soon, will help save people from hazardous chemicals by making use of the best available science and setting up a stronger screening system that takes them off the market. It will also help animals.
Historically, the government relied too heavily on animal testing when it decided to conduct risk assessments for some of the 85,000 chemicals in commerce.
Animal tests proved slow and expensive, producing confusing and misleading results and undermining the imperative to protect consumers from dangerous substances. They also proved unmistakably cruel; humans would never encounter the kind of concentrated dosages to which these helpless creatures are exposed. Perhaps most importantly, they proved nonpredictive; animals often don’t react the same way as humans.
I got a practical understanding of this issue six years ago when I deployed with U.S. Sen. David Vitter in response to the disaster at the Deepwater Horizon drilling site, where a broken rig dumped millions of gallons of oil into the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I will never be able to shake some of the images: pelicans covered in crude, dead dolphins washed ashore, endangered sea turtles suffering unattended in begrimed marshes.
Because of the urgent nature of the crisis, chemical dispersants had to be approved and deployed within weeks. Instead of relying on animal testing, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development had to adapt, turning to faster methods of toxicity assessment to determine the possible effects on humans. It worked.
High throughput screening — using robots to apply dispersants to different concentrations of human cells — enabled the EPA to quickly issue a safety report, demonstrating that meaningful chemical testing could be accomplished without animal suffering.
Drawing on these lessons, The Humane Society of the United States has worked closely with Vitter and other key lawmakers to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act, demanding scientific alternatives to animal testing. When this bill is ushered into law, the new regime will consolidate information, require actual safety testing, and allow the use of animals only in rare circumstances.
It’s a big moment in our society when the government pivots away from cumbersome animal testing and toward 21st-century technologies that offer more reliable scientific results.
As we move forward, consumers will feel better about both the ethics and the safety of the products they put into their bodies, and we’ll be able to react more efficiently and with greater accuracy when disaster strikes. When that happens, we’ll have the best of both worlds — better outcomes for people, and better outcomes for animals, too.
president and CEO, The Humane Society of the United States