07/20/2010 06:48 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Replacing the "Guinea Pig:" Safer, Humane Chemical Tests

Last month, the Environmental Defense Fund and its partners in the campaign to reform U.S. law to regulate chemicals made an impassioned plea for American consumers not to be treated like "guinea pigs." I'd like to remind our friends and colleagues in the environmental and consumer protection communities that advocates for animal protection -- while respecting the interests of all animals and believing that none of them should be treated like disposable lab equipment -- also care about protecting human health and the environment, and that we all must work together to achieve a future that is both safer and more humane.

It goes without saying that informed decisions regarding chemical safety cannot be made without adequate information (including testing to detect hazardous properties, and information concerning the levels to which humans and wildlife may be exposed). However, simply calling for more data is not the answer; it is also vital that the inadequacies of the current testing paradigm be acknowledged and overcome.

Today's chemical testing entails animal poisoning studies, most of which were designed decades ago, and which tell us a lot about how large doses of single chemicals affect small animals with short life spans, but very little about how mixtures of chemicals at typically low exposure levels affect larger, longer-living human beings. A rat force-fed a chemical for his or her three-year life -- often causing painful symptoms such as tumors and organ failure -- cannot reliably predict the effects of a human lifetime's worth of low-level exposure to a "cocktail" of environmental chemicals, which is the situation we're faced with in the real world.

Animal tests are expensive and time consuming, and their relevance is often questioned by stakeholders on one side or the other, leading to disputes over which chemicals represent a real threat, and a seemingly bottomless pit of animal testing to "prove" that a chemical is harmful or safe. (Remember the decades-long battle over whether cigarette smoking causes cancer? Today, history is repeating itself with Bisphenol A and other chemicals.) Even in optimum conditions, regulating chemicals on the basis of animal data takes years, and relies heavily on guesswork and unproven assumptions. And at the end of all that, the results can still -- rightly -- be called into question.

So instead of dealing with chemical safety and animal suffering as two separate issues, The HSUS and its affiliates are addressing the "guinea pig" problem with one ambitious project.

In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences published a report titled "Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy." In it, a team of eminent scientists (including HSUS staff member Martin Stephens, Ph.D.) established two guiding principles: first, that animal testing is of limited value in predicting real-life human health effects of chemicals or for dealing with the current backlog of tens of thousands of chemicals that are being inadequately regulated; and second that a new approach -- a paradigm shift -- is needed. The Academy advocates moving away from conventional animal test requirements toward a combination of modern computer-based and human-relevant systems biology approaches that can deliver results in days rather than years, and at a small fraction of the cost of animal testing. In fact, many of the participating scientists envision the complete replacement of animal tests, and see this work as prompting a long overdue, and desperately needed, revolution in the regulation of chemicals.

The Human Toxicology Project we are promoting in the United States and globally is, like the Human Genome Project before it, a solution-oriented scientific program that will overhaul the current antiquated testing paradigm so we are no longer treated as guinea pigs -- and neither are guinea pigs. It will prevent the horrible effects of testing toxic chemicals on millions of animals, greatly advance our understanding of the effects of chemicals on human biology, and lead to more reliable risk assessment decisions.

This post originally appeared on Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.