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Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Rather than making its primary focus the reduction of emissions and the prevention of human and environmental exposures to toxic chemicals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has instead chosen to establish “acceptable” exposure levels based on the results of animal tests.

In fact, the EPA requires more animal-based chemical toxicity testing than any other federal agency. Yet in more than 10 years, the EPA has banned only a handful of toxic industrial chemicals using its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act despite killing hundreds of thousands of animals and despite urgent calls to limit chemical exposures.

Catering to the Chemical Industry

The chemical industry has long approved of federal regulatory agencies’ near-exclusive reliance on animal testing, since the results of these tests are always subject to interpretation. In addition, any required testing means that their products are safe from regulation for years while products are tested and retested. And after decades of practice, industry representatives have perfected the art of arguing both sides of the animal-testing issue.

For example, if a chemical is shown to cause cancer or other harmful effects in animal tests, industry representatives claim that the results are not applicable to humans. This has happened with the pesticide atrazine and with chemicals called phthalates (ingredients in plastic products, including children’s toys and IV bags). In each of these cases, companies have argued that cancers that develop in animals exposed to these chemicals would not occur in humans, and the arguments have worked. Both of these chemicals remain on the market and in widespread use even though thousands of animals have died in agony during their EPA-mandated testing.

Another example is saccharin, which was recently removed from the federal list of cancer-causing chemicals. In the late 1970s, huge doses of saccharin caused bladder cancer in rats, and the sugar industry had a field day. Now, two decades later, government scientists have been forced to admit that the animal tests just aren’t relevant to humans.

At the same time, though, company officials happily rattle off the results of EPA-required animal studies that show that their chemicals are not harmful. In these cases, companies laud the predictability of animal studies and claim that their products are safe for humans. This is exactly what happened with cigarettes for more than 20 years as industry scientists claimed that tobacco was safe for humans because animals who were forced to inhale cigarette smoke in laboratory experiments did not develop cancer.

The EPA has taken steps to adopt the approach outlined in the landmark 2007 National Academy of Sciences report Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy, which presents a strategy for moving away from animal testing toward cell-based and molecular approaches. These new non-animal methods allow thousands of chemicals and mixtures to be tested in a short period of time—which is not possible to do using animals.

Follow the links below to learn more about the EPA’s animal testing programs: