EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Monday. (Erin O. Smith/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP)

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday a plan to dramatically reduce its reliance on animal testing to assess the dangers of chemicals, pledging to end nearly all experiments on mammals by 2035.

A directive from EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler says the agency will scale back requests for and funding of mammal studies by 30 percent by 2025; after 2035, any use of such tests will require the approval of the agency’s administrator. The memo also commits $4.25 million in grants to five universities for developing alternative experiments that “will minimize and hopefully eliminate the need for animal testing,” Wheeler told reporters.

Wheeler signed the directive while flanked by representatives of animal protection groups that have long campaigned against animal testing. Public health and environmental groups, however, expressed concern about the change.

Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who has championed the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations, described the subject as one of personal importance to him. Wheeler’s staff gave reporters copies of a 1987 column he had written for his college newspaper that called for decreasing animal testing.

“There are a lot of alternatives between computer modeling to in vitro testing that we can use to replace animal testing,” Wheeler said Tuesday. “Oftentimes we find that the animal testing … has perhaps misled us on the science, and there are better alternatives for testing the impacts of chemicals on people.”

The EPA’s move comes as Congress is increasing its scrutiny of federal agencies over animal tests.

In April, the Agriculture Department ended controversial experiments on cats. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration halted a nicotine study on squirrel monkeys and Congress passed legislation prohibiting most uses of dogs in medical research at the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA has since reduced but declined to eliminate the tests, and the agency’s inspector general is now investigating the experiments at the urging of lawmakers.

The EPA performs tests on animals and in some cases requires such tests from chemical companies. Agency labs use as many as 20,000 rabbits, mice, fish and rats each year, according to Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy for the White Coat Waste Project, a three-year-old organization that has helped galvanize bipartisan opposition to federally funded animal testing.

The EPA’s new plan amounts to “what we believe is the most comprehensive and aggressive plan in U.S. history to cut wasteful taxpayer-funded animal testing,” Goodman told reporters Tuesday.

Wheeler described the directive as a continuation of efforts that accelerated in 2016, under the Obama administration, when the Toxic Substances Control Act was amended to require the EPA to reduce its reliance on animal testing.

While such developments have been praised by animal advocates, they have been assailed by some researchers and public health and environmental groups that say animal tests remain critical for determining risks to people.

The Natural Resources Defense Council called Wheeler’s directive an “irresponsible plan” that will depend on testing methods that “may not be sufficient for testing all chemicals.”

“Phasing out foundational scientific testing methods can make it much harder to identify toxic chemicals — and protect human health,” Jennifer Sass, senior scientist for the council’s Healthy People and Thriving Communities program, said in a statement. “Once again, the Trump administration appears to be working on behalf of the chemical industry and not the public. Congress should bar the agency from blindfolding itself.”

Internal EPA communications obtained earlier this year by the Intercept, a news website, show that the agency communicated with chemical companies including Dow Chemical about collaborating on alternative testing methods.

Wheeler said Tuesday that he had “not been lobbied by a single chemical company” on the topic, which he said was “of long-standing interest to me personally.” When he was young, he said, his mother told him about “the ethical problems” of animal testing, and he added that one of his sisters is a zoologist and another a veterinarian.

Wheeler said he felt confident that the 16 years between now and 2035 would provide enough time for scientists to develop effective non-animal tests.

“When I wrote this article back in 1987, I didn’t think we were that far away from banning animal testing,” Wheeler said. “Part of why I’m doing this today is it’s been 30 years, and we haven’t made enough progress.”

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