Al Gore’s Deadly Animal Test Plan and the Scientist Who Can Stop It
After his plan to resume whaling and his massive pig farm bailout, the vice president’s new plan to kill 800,000 animals in pointless tests may be his worst yet.
In the early months of 1999, while the nation’s attention was focused on President Clinton’s problems, Vice President Al Gore was pushing a plan that aims to kill 800,000 animals in barbaric and useless tests, beginning before the year is out.
It began as a part of Gore’s efforts to appear concerned about the environment. Seizing on an old Environmental Protection Agency report that suggested that many high-production industrial chemicals had never been safety tested, Gore demanded that chemical manufacturers begin new tests on nearly 2,800 chemicals. If they don’t volunteer to do the tests, he’ll force them to do so in what is now called the High Production Volume (HPV) Challenge.
The tests include the gruesome lethal dose-50% test (LD50), in which animals are forced to ingest or inhale a chemical in increasing doses until half are dead, as well as longer-term tests. In all, Gore’s plan will kill an estimated 800,000 birds, fish, rats, mice, and other animals. The price tag to businesses is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, plus an extra $14 million EPA will need to review the results. The Environmental Defense Fund supported the plan, claiming that killing hundreds of thousands of animals is crucial to protecting the environment.
PCRM analysts found, however, that the EPA had botched the job. The chemicals Gore thought needed safety testing included rat poison, turpentine, and leaded gasoline—chemicals whose risks were already well known. Odder still, Gore called for testing sorbitol, the sweetener in sugarless gum, as well as soybean oil and palm oil—hardly an environmental crisis.
It turned out that the EPA simply had not checked the right databases of prior test results and had completely ignored all evidence from human exposures. The EPA had checked the Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances (RTECS), the Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB), TOXLINE, and MEDLINE. However, PCRM’s review did not stop there. We added to our search the Toxicology, Occupational Medicine and Environmental Series Consolidated Point Solution (TOMES CPS), which includes toxicological data drawn from a wide variety of sources. We found that data thought by the EPA to be lacking were indeed often available. Here is a sampling:
- The antiknock agent in leaded gasoline, tetraethyl lead: The EPA claims that chronic toxicity tests were never done, and a 14- to 28-day rodent test is needed. However, we found that a 20-week chronic toxicity study had already been done in rats and a 3-week test had been done in mice. More importantly, acute and chronic poisoning in humans is well known and thoroughly described.
- Carbon tetrachloride: Again, the EPA claims that chronic toxicity animal tests were never done. Yet we found that a 12-week rat study conducted at the University of Georgia had shown the chemical to cause liver toxicity. More importantly, the dangers of acute and chronic carbon tetrachloride exposure have been documented in humans in several studies.
- Turpentine: Believe it or not, the EPA claims the we’re not sure about turpentine’s risks and again called for chronic toxicity tests. Yet, in addition to human toxicity data, we found 4- and 8-week rat studies already finished.
- Butane: The EPA wants to know the dangers if butane leaks into waterways and is calling for acute toxicity tests on fish and other animals. However, PCRM analysts showed that butane does not dissolve in water or bioconcentrate in animal tissues. It simply vaporizes, and animal tests would be pointless.
The Tests Will Go Forward, Gore Insists
None of this has stopped the vice president. At his urging, the deadly test plan is going forward at full steam. In December, the EPA summoned hundreds of industry representatives to a Washington meeting to encourage their cooperation. In every session the manufacturers nodded in solemn agreement, and during the coffee breaks they laughed out loud at the absurd program. PCRM president Neal Barnard, M.D., presented the data showing that, indeed, there was no call for animal tests. While most manufacturers present agreed, it is unclear at this time whether they can stop the testing program.
A prominent EPA official said at the meeting, “If saving one bald eagle means killing a million lab rats, then so be it,” reflecting a surprising naiveté regarding what laboratory tests can and cannot accomplish and what are the most effective means of protecting the environment. The EPA currently has no plans for using any of the test results. Indeed, the key for protecting people and the environment does not lie in further tests of rat poison, turpentine, or anything else, but in preventing exposures.
Meanwhile Gore’s “environmentalist” posture continues to unravel. First, in a confidential White House “memorandum of conversation” dated October 5, 1993, and leaked to the Animal Welfare Institute, Gore and Norwegian Prime Minister Brundtland conspired for passage of a Revised Management Scheme (RMS) in order to resume commercial whaling. Then, when pig farms—whose slurry and smells are a growing environmental nightmare—fell on hard times, Gore announced a $130 million pork bailout plan.
Why would an environmentalist like Al Gore be so visibly linked to such programs? Many believe that Gore’s environmentalist stance was never intended to be anything more than a safely uncontroversial image, like Lady Bird Johnson’s efforts to beautify America, or the literacy and antidrug campaigns of other First Ladies. The environmentalist image provided an identity without upsetting anyone. And Gore readily abandoned it when he needed to.
The Scientist with a Better Test Program
Human cell tests have shown their superiority over animal tests. Dr. Bjorn Ekwall and colleagues in the Multicenter Evaluation of In-Vitro Cytotoxicity (MEIC) trial based in Uppsala, Sweden, recently released final data from 29 independent laboratories. The results showed that while rat and mouse tests have been about 65 percent accurate in predicting human risk, a combination of three human cell tests predicted the toxicity of chemicals with 77 percent precision. Further improvements can be made by statistical adjustments, based on a test chemical’s ability to pass through the blood-brain barrier. Human cell tests may also provide information for judging ecotoxicity. The most accurate human cell tests were developed in Belgium, Japan, and Mexico.
The MEIC trial tested 61 different in-vitro assays for their correlations with human lethal blood concentrations, comparing the results with lethal dose (LD50) tests on rats and mice. They tested 50 chemicals which varied widely in their chemical properties.
While the rodent tests showed varying degrees of inaccuracy for the 50 test chemicals, they were wildly inaccurate in predicting human lethal doses for 9 chemicals. For one of these, digoxin, the problem was clear: rodents have less Na/K ATPase enzyme activity compared to humans, rendering rodent tests useless. In fact, rat LD50s are not particularly good predictors of mouse LD50s. The MEIC review found that rat tests grossly underpredicted results of mouse tests for several chemicals. An animal LD50 test could exonerate a chemical or make it appear safer than it is. Human cell tests are far better predictors of human toxicity.