The Senate’s approval Tuesday of a far-reaching bill to overhaul government regulation of toxic chemicals was hailed by environmental and public health experts as a key move toward protecting Americans, as well as their land and water, from harmful substances.
But the legislation, which passed the House and is expected to be signed by President Obama, also will have many other beneficiaries: thousands of animals.
The measure, which updates the 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, includes a provision aimed at reducing the Environmental Protection Agency and chemical firms’ use of animals to test the safety and effects of chemical products. The EPA should use non-animal alternatives where possible, the legislation says, and must come up with a plan to develop and adopt more non-animal methods, such as computer modeling or cell-based tests.
Millions of animals are killed in U.S. lab tests and experiments each year, the vast majority of them mice, rats, birds and fish. The legislation addresses only some of these tests, and it doesn’t forbid them. But animal welfare groups say it sets an important precedent that is a reflection of both changing public attitudes and a slow, ongoing movement away from animal testing by some industries and research agencies. The National Institutes of Health, for example, has deemed biomedical research using chimpanzees unnecessary and ended it.
“This is the first signal from Congress that it is a priority to move away from animal testing,” Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said in an interview. “It’s a combination of growing moral concern for animals and a recognition that there’s a social cost to using animals, but also of these new scientific methods that are giving us options we never really had before.”
The alternatives, proponents say, are often faster, cheaper and more effective. Chemical tests have been criticized not only for harming animals — by forcing them to ingest, inhale or absorb large quantities of toxic substances — but also because the results are not always applicable to people.
“We lack information on many chemicals and how they affect a diverse human population, because we rely too heavily on slow, unreliable, and expensive animal tests,” Kristie Sullivan, vice president of toxicology for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that opposes animal testing and advocates a plant-based diet, said in a statement. “Because information obtained on chemicals will be human-relevant, products Americans use will be safer.”
The animal testing provision in the bill passed Tuesday was spearheaded by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and it was reported to be a sticking point for Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Thirty-nine House Democrats wrote a letter to Pallone in May expressing “concern that the animal testing language is still not reconciled,” and urging him to support it. Pallone later said he took no issue with the provision.
“You can see lights going on and people understanding what a difference this would make,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the co-chair of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus. “And to be able to seize this opportunity for a little incremental progress with bipartisan support seemed too important to miss.”
A bill that would fully ban animal testing for cosmetics has been introduced in Congress, although that’s considered a much harder sell. But it’s far from unheard of: The European Union, India and Israel have implemented similar bans, and Australia has pledged to do so. Many U.S. cosmetics companies, spurred in part by growing consumer concern for animal welfare, have stopped using such tests, Pacelle said.
“We’re seeing the global map fill out,” he said. “We should soon should see the end of the era of animal testing for cosmetics.”