Left-leaning advocacy organizations have lined up to oppose the Trump administration’s EPA at virtually every step, but one group stands as a stark outlier: animal rights activists.
Leaders from the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals flanked Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler last month as he announced plans to eliminate nearly all animal testing experiments by 2035.
For animal rights groups, the announcement was hailed as a victory for both animals and the environment. But for other advocacy groups with much broader mandates, it reflected a growing difference of opinion about the role that animal suffering plays in regulating thousands of potentially harmful chemicals.
Relationships between the EPA and the animal rights community haven’t always been friendly: Back in 1990s the EPA was a regular focus of protests over the agency’s reliance on animal in toxicology testing on chemicals and pesticides.
That opposition has all but vanished as animal rights groups have become more involved with shaping policy, according to the Humane Society.
“Under Administrator Wheeler’s leadership, EPA continues to forge a pathway to end decades of reliance on conventional animal tests,” said Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
A week after Wheeler’s announcement, the agency released a draft science policy that would allow companies to seek waivers for a pesticide toxicity test involving birds. That policy was the byproduct of a peer-reviewed study co-authored by the EPA and the PETA International Science Consortium.
“Twenty years ago, I don’t think animal-protection organizations were recognized as stakeholders,” said Amy Clippinger, director of PETA’s Regulatory Testing Department. “Now our scientists attend all the same meetings and forums. There’s increased transparency and inclusion across the board.”
Testing on ‘Human Animals’
Environmental watchdogs including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) claim that while ending animal-based testing may spare animal lives in the lab, it risks exposing many more to harm in nature.
“The government is and will continue testing chemicals on animals—it’ll just be human animals,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at EWG. “Rhetorically speaking, it seems like EPA is showing more concerns for lab rats than the people the agency is charged with protecting.”
Faber told Bloomberg Environment he suspects that EPA’s motivation for eliminating animal testing is less about animal welfare and more about easing the way for chemical companies to get their products to U.S. markets.
But environmental groups would criticize his approach “no matter how good it is for the environment,” Wheeler said last week while speaking at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law.
“I was immediately accused of doing this because of the chemical companies,” Wheeler said. “I’ve never talked to a chemical company about animal testing at all.”
While it’s getting attention now, EPA’s interest in nonanimal testing methods isn’t exactly a new direction for the agency.
A 2007 report by the National Academy of Sciences, which EPA endorsed, found that cell-based tests and biochemical approaches could eventually make it possible for scientists to evaluate more chemicals, faster, and at much lower cost than tests involving whole animals.
In a memorandum to agency staff, Wheeler said that developing effective nonanimal methods of testing was a key part of the strategic directives Congress intended in the 2016 amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act.
“Animal testing is expensive and time-consuming,” Wheeler said. “The agency must develop more accurate, quicker and more cost-effective test methods if it is to meet its 21st century commitments.”
But others say that while alternative testing methods like advanced computer modeling, or testing on engineered tissues or human cells—called in-vitro testing—have developed rapidly in recent years, they still can’t capture all complex chemical exposure risk factors.
‘Based on Sound Science’
“When it comes to chronic or systemic health effects, these methods still lack the ability to capture the biological processes that occur in whole living organisms,” wrote Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the NRDC.
In developing treatments for complex disorders like infertility, autism, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and even obesity, Sass said some animal testing might still be necessary to fully understand the relationship between chemicals and the environment.
But animal welfare groups counter that rather than decreasing the quality of data in risk assessments, the changes EPA is proposing could actually result in tests that are easier to reproduce, and since they are often based on human tissues and cells, are actually more predictive of human impacts than animal testing.
“I can say with certainty that EPA’s decisions and policies on animal testing are based on sound science,” said PETA’s Clippinger.
In recent years, PETA has worked with EPA to develop a list of nonanimal testing methods, which PETA says could eliminate the need for hundreds of unnecessary and duplicative tests, while retaining the same level of protection for human health.
“Whenever a previous test is waived, it is because EPA scientists have reviewed decades of data that prove the new test will protect the human health and the environment just as well, or better, than the old one,” said Clippinger.
‘Just Cells in a Petri Dish’
But some scientists aren’t yet convinced.
“When you go to regulate a chemical, the risk assessor has to answer the question, ‘What is the adverse effect of the chemical?’” said Laura Vandenberg, an endocrinologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “In an animal, you can actually observe the effect. You’ll see things like weight loss, or organ damage. But when it’s just cells in a petri dish, it’s much harder to determine what constitutes an adverse outcome.”
Vandenberg agreed that efforts to reduce the number of animals used in regulatory testing should be applauded and show great potential. But on the narrow issue of whether there should ever be animal testing, she said, the goals of groups like PETA align closely with the chemical industry’s.
“What they both have come in common is that they don’t want a system of modernized animal testing,” she said. “PETA doesn’t want it because they think its unethical, and the industry opposes it because they’re worried they might show how toxic some of these chemicals are.”