The lesser evil
A few years ago, a pregnant woman came to see me in clinic. She worked
in a laboratory where she was exposed to a chemical solvent. She wanted
to know whether the chemical might harm her fetus. A search of the data
collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) quickly revealed
that this chemical causes toxic effects in laboratory rats, resulting
in fetal reabsorption. Although fetal reabsorption does not occur in
humans, miscarriage does. Needless to say, I moved quickly to remove
this woman from harm's way.
I do not relish the fact that chemicals are tested in animals, and for ethical reasons I did not participate in animal dissections in medical school because they were for practice rather than for protection of health and the environment. Tests in lab animals, however, can be critically important tools, along with non-animal tests and human epidemiologic studies, to protect people, pets, and wildlife from dangerous chemicals.
Just last month, a researcher from the University of California at Berkeley published a study showing that tiny doses of atrazine, the most common pesticide in the United States and a major water contaminant, caused male laboratory frogs to become hermaphrodites, developing both testes and ovaries. NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is petitioning EPA to ban this dangerous chemical, based significantly on the serious health risks to frogs.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has attacked NRDC because we support EPA's Endocrine Disruptor Screening and Testing Program. The program was created under the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), which Congress unanimously passed in 1996. The law aims to protect children from pesticides, including chemicals that disrupt the body's hormones and the endocrine glands that produce them.
Since hormone and neurological systems in rats are very similar to those in humans, laboratory tests can yield invaluable information. For example, the notorious pesticide Dursban is off the shelves of hardware stores because it was found to impair brain development in laboratory rats. Since Dursban was used for flea control on dogs and cats, the ban protected both pets and children. Last year, the EPA banned diazinon for household use for the same reasons. The endocrine disrupting pesticide vinclozolin is no longer on the fruit we eat because it was found to cause deformed penises in laboratory rats. PETA misleads with their assertion that EPA has not banned chemicals using the Toxic Substances Control Act. In fact, many chemicals have been banned or controlled under a wide array of laws, by numerous federal, local, and state agencies because of toxic effects that appeared in lab animals.
What are all the other harmful chemicals that we are routinely exposed to? The fact is we don't know. However, we do know that literally thousands of chemicals are being released into our air and water or sold in consumer products despite utterly inadequate assessments of their safety. Among nearly 3,000 chemicals produced at over a million pounds per year in the United States, less than a quarter have been tested for chronic (long-term, or cumulative) health effects. This is disgraceful. It means that all of us - our children, pets, and wildlife - are guinea pigs in a huge uncontrolled chemical experiment.
NRDC would prefer not to subject any animals to testing. But the alternatives - continued ignorance or human testing - are unacceptable. There is simply no non-animal alternative for tests searching for birth defects, neurological impairment, and reproductive problems. Even where non-animal tests exist, it is often impossible to extrapolate the results to humans.
Animal testing should be minimized or eliminated when scientifically appropriate, and the welfare of test animals must be a central concern of any testing program. NRDC recently negotiated a legal settlement with EPA in which the agency agreed to reduce the number of animals used in the endocrine disruptor program, refine procedures to make the tests less painful or stressful, and replace animals with non-animal systems when scientifically appropriate.
If PETA succeeds in paralyzing EPA toxicology programs, the winners will be the major chemical and pesticide companies. The industry would love to manufacture and profit from chemicals without worrying that the public will find out its products may cause serious health effects. The chemical manufacturers would love not to worry about EPA using scientific information to tighten regulations or even to ban their products.
We need all the information and all the tools that we can muster in order to prevent harm from the thousands of chemicals that are used in our workplaces, schools, and consumer products, and that are being released into our air and water and spread on our food. While we would prefer not to sacrifice a single laboratory rat, we believe that the sacrifice is warranted to protect our children and future generations.
Dr. Gina Solomon, MD, MPH is a physician and senior scientist in the Health and Environment program of the Natural Resources Defense Council. For more information, visit www.nrdc.org.