People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been taking out a lot of ads lately denouncing Vice President Al Gore for advocating the slaughter of innocent bunny rabbits. (Perhaps you've seen the one in Slate.) According to PETA (and Bill Maher and Paul McCartney, who've joined the crusade; a nonprofit called Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is also on board), Gore, "in place of regulatory action on known dangerous chemicals ... is pushing a plan to run 3,000 of the most widely used chemicals (such as turpentine and rat poison) through a variety of crude animal tests. Most ... are already known to be either safe or harmful to humans, and much information, both from animal studies and human exposure, already exists on them." Slate's PETA ad includes some video footage of experiments done on rabbits and beagles; Chatterbox, to his great relief, couldn't figure out how to download this Grand Guignol onto his laptop. In addition, according to U.S. News & World Report , PETA has dispatched someone in a bunny suit to show up at Gore's campaign appearances. The controversy drove the National Enquirer to commit "public" journalism: A recent article, headlined "Govt Plans To Waste $15 Million Killing 800,000 Helpless Animals," was accompanied by a coupon readers were supposed to send to the vice president's office, urging that the carnage be stopped.
What is this all about? Chatterbox, having investigated the matter, can now report: A whole lot of nothing.
In an Earth Day speech last year, Gore announced that the Environmental Protection Agency was entering into a voluntary agreement with the chemical industry to test the toxicity of around 3,000 "high production volume" chemicals. (Here's the White House fact sheet .) An earlier EPA study had been able to locate complete toxicity data (as defined internationally by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) for only 7 percent of these HPV chemicals. For the rest, the EPA told the chemical industry: You go find the toxicity data. If it isn't there, generate it. If you don't do it, we'll issue a rule under the Toxic Substances Control Act that requires you to do it. As of this writing, the chemical industry has pledged to retrieve or perform research on 1,150 chemicals. All in all, a fairly unexceptional public-private partnership--except for the fact that it involves animal experimentation.
Why must wee woodland creatures die to test chemical toxicity? Because, says Joe Carra, deputy director of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, whom Chatterbox won't fault for stating the obvious: "We don't think that humans should be the guinea pigs for high production chemicals." Carra says the EPA is taking steps to avoid animal tests whenever possible. If the OECD protocols were followed in the most "animal-intensive" manner possible, Carra says, there would be testing on 430 animals for each chemical. By minimizing use of animals, that's been reduced to 88 to 138 animals per chemical. Carra says that because of PETA's bellyaching, no testing at all will be done on bunny rabbits, the value of whose lives is of course no greater than that of rats and mice.
But why test substances such as turpentine that are already known to be toxic? Because, Carra explains, the EPA doesn't just want to know about toxicity to humans; it also wants to know about the chemicals' environmental effects. "If we have an ecological problem with something," he explains, "it's going to kill animals or it's going to kill their food supply." Opponents to the tests have made much mirth about animals being killed to save the lives of animals, but from an ecological point of view, it makes perfect sense. Conservation isn't about preventing the deaths of individual animals; it's about preventing the deaths of species.
Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the PCRM, told Chatterbox that "the whole premise of this program is off-kilter" because his group has found a lot more data on these chemicals than the EPA has. But if that's the case, won't the companies on the hook to perform new research have an economic incentive to find this data? "They may not," he said. Well, if they don't, perhaps Dr. Barnard can give it to them. (Check out PETA's response to this column in "E-Mail to the Editors ."