Staffers passing by a room in the U.S. House of Representatives office building earlier this month did double takes. Whom they saw inside were no ordinary Capitol Hill briefing attendees: rats, mice, guinea pigs and rabbits.
The presence of these animals in the halls of Congress evidences a paradigm shift that could forever change how we protect public health in America. It's one of many developments this month that signal progress toward a safer future.
Congressman James Moran (D-Va.) introduced a bill to end animal testing for cosmetics, and I spoke at the briefing, mentioned above, which he jointly hosted with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine about the use of animals in regulatory testing. The House Energy and Commerce Committee also held a hearing this month on a draft bill to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the 1976 law that regulates industrial chemicals.
As a physician, scientist and public health administrator, I'm heartened by this surge in motivation to improve chemical testing in the United States, an effort that has been somewhat slow moving for the past several decades.
Current testing methods are intended to evaluate how chemicals such as those found in consumer products might harm humans and the environment. But they rely heavily on the use of animals, a faulty approach considering animal tests have never been scientifically proven to predict human outcomes.
These tests involve administering supersized doses of chemicals — up to 1,000 times higher than humans would ever be exposed to. Assessing high doses of one chemical at a time on young, genetically homogenous animals in artificial lab conditions doesn't predict the potential harm a large number of chemicals might have on a diverse human population influenced by a near-infinite number of genetic and environmental factors.
Furthermore, many of the most common tests — the infamous Draize skin and eye tests, which involve placing a substance on an animal to check for toxic effects, for example — use such subjective measurements that mean results are totally arbitrary. They're also incredibly expensive and time consuming; a series of tests on one single chemical can cost around $6 million and can take three years to complete.
Aside from the fact that these tests routinely fail to predict human effects, there's also the obvious suffering: Animals used in chemical testing — always alive and fully conscious — are never given pain relief. They're scalded by chemicals on their skin and eyes, shoved into tubes no larger than their bodies and forced to breathe noxious fumes. Yet they're no more immune to pain than the dogs and cats we live with.
I realize that to some individuals, my arguments would lose value if viable alternatives to this process didn't exist. But they do. A National Research Council report titled Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy details a step-by-step plan to modernize toxicity testing to predict human responses to chemicals. Through "Tox21," public-private partnerships are developing efficient testing methods that take animals out of the picture. One Tox21 product, for example, is NIH's ultra-high-speed robot that can test more chemicals in a single day than have been tested in the past 20 to 30 years using animals.
I recognize, too, that my stance against animal testing places me in the company of so-called animal-rights activists. But let me be clear: My perspective is a purely scientific one, and I have a demonstrated commitment first and foremost to public health.
And I'm far from alone in my position. Our nation's leading scientists — experts at the National Academy of Sciences — have recommended a complete shift away from animal testing. According to Gallup polls, 41 percent of American adults and more than half of people under 30 oppose it, too. The European Union and the State of São Paulo, Brazil have banned animal testing for cosmetics. For other kinds of chemicals, the EU requires that animals be used only as a last resort, after all other, better methods to obtain information have been exhausted.
U.S. lawmakers now have a crucial opportunity to follow suit. The passage of the Humane Cosmetics Act and the insertion of a similar "last resort" clause into the House and Senate TSCA reform bills could save countless lives — both human and animal. We can do better than rely on animals to predict human results. It's time to let go of the methods of the past and embrace 21st-century science.
Dr. Martin Wasserman is a pediatric clinician, attorney and public health administrator who previously served as the governor-appointed State Health Director for Maryland and Oregon and represented more than 25,000 licensed physicians as executive director of the Maryland State Medical Society. He has served on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and was Director of Immunization Practices and Scientific Affairs for the Vaccine Division of GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.