Cosmetics tests on animals have already been
banned in Britain. Soon they will be outlawed throughout the
European Union. But in 1997, more than 600 000 animals, mostly mice,
were used in other toxicity tests in Britain. Around 100 000 of them
Most of the animals - more than 400 000 - were
involved in testing drugs. And our poll suggests that while most
people accept the necessity of some drugs safety tests, they don't
support toxicity tests on other products.
We chose a garden
insecticide as a product that many people would use and are likely
to understand would need rigorous safety tests to minimise any risk
to health. Yet 68 per cent disapproved of mice being used to test
insecticide safety, if the animals were likely to become ill. This
is nearest any experiment on mice came to matching the 86 per cent
disapproval for cosmetics tests involving animal suffering.
But would a ban on toxicity tests be practical? Experts say
that unilateral action in one country would be futile, and could
even lead to greater suffering by shifting tests required by law to
protect consumers from hazardous chemicals to nations with lower
standards for animal welfare.
Any effort to phase out
toxicity tests on animals would need to lean heavily on the OECD,
the club to which the leading industrialised nations belong.
Officials at the OECD's headquarters in Paris draw up guidelines for
the types of tests needed to clear products for sale. Since 1979,
they have set standards which allow tests conducted in one country
to be accepted by regulatory authorities in each of the
organisation's 29 members. This means tests only have to be done
once. "I think there's been a saving of 40 per cent of all animals
used in toxicology testing since the guidelines were first
developed," says Herman Koeter of the OECD.
substances, the guidelines demand data from mice and one other
species. They are updated to introduce new procedures when officials
are convinced that they will produce the same result with fewer
animals. But all OECD member nations have to agree to any change,
and campaigners for animal welfare argue that the OECD has been too
slow to back alternative tests based on cell or tissue cultures.
Meanwhile, companies are devising new methods to screen out
excessively toxic chemicals before they get anywhere near an animal.
Zeneca Agrochemicals, for instance, is working on a "biochip" which
contains human genes that are activated by exposure to toxic
chemicals. But regulators say that animal toxicity tests will be
essential for the foreseeable future.
If our survey had
followed hard on the heels of a high-profile scare linking the use
of an inadequately tested insecticide to cancer or birth defects,
the results might have been very different. But as the recent furore
in Britain over genetically modified foods has shown, scares of this
type seldom provoke a reasoned debate. The onus is now on
governments and companies to explain why they believe that
experiments most people find distasteful are a necessary evil.
From New Scientist, 22 May 1999