How Should We Test Man-Made Chemicals?
If We Let Animal-Rights Activists And Chemophobes Dictate Policy, The World Risks Massive Human And Environmental Losses
September 13, 1998
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.—India has given jurisdiction over its science laboratories to an animal-rights activist, Social Justice Minister Maneka Gandhi. This marks the first time a major world nation has officially put animal rights ahead of human well-being in laboratory research.
Half a world away, U.S. activists have launched a broadside against the use of human volunteers in the final safety tests of new pesticides.
Both positions are "politically correct," but together they are intolerable for any thoughtful society.
If we cannot test the safety of our drugs and pesticides on either animals or humans, how will the world safely develop new vaccines to prevent children's deaths? Or triple crop yields to feed a peak population of 8.5 billion affluent people?
BACK WHEN the average life span was 35 years, people understood the immediate threat of epidemic diseases and crop-destroying plagues of pests.
Our grandfathers spent much of their scarce capital for medical schools and research laboratories to lower the horrifying death tolls from yellow fever, blood poisoning, childbirth infections, diphtheria, pneumonia, smallpox and so forth.
They built agricultural experiment stations to seek higher-yielding seeds, more nutritious poultry rations and better controls for crop pests.
The greater good demanded drugs and pesticides, and it was better to test them on a few than permit a huge mistake that would hurt many. It was also better to test on animals than people.
SAFETY was the overriding issue in developing effective drugs and pesticides.
Now our grandfathers' thankless descendants, feeling secure with our long life spans and overweight physiques, say we don't need drugs and pesticides—or at least we don't need them enough to justify tests that "cruelly endanger" laboratory rats and monkeys.
And certainly, they argue, we don't need them enough to resort to "human guinea pigs."
UNDER INDIA'S new rules, that nation's laboratories will send quarterly reports to an administrator who basically disapproves of "her animals" being used for drug and pesticide tests.
Will India's new rules mean significantly better treatment for India's laboratory animals?
Will the new rules destroy India's research aimed at ending the widespread ravages of malaria?
Will they hamper India's efforts to get more effective pesticides to displace the older, harsher chemicals it still uses to protect its crop yields?
REFLECTING INDIA'S long-standing suspicion of the capitalist world, the new rules would effectively ban any research involving animal tests for foreign institutions or companies.
"Why should my animals be subjected to cruel tests for the sake of Western companies?" Ms. Gandhi said in a recent interview with the weekly magazine Science.
"I am very happy that there will be more paperwork" for the scientists, she said. "They are used to doing whatever they feel like. Now they will have to fall in line."
IN THE UNITED STATES, the new Food Quality Protection Act authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce permitted exposure to a pesticide by a whole order of magnitude whenever the agency feels the "safety of children" is at stake.
That means cutting exposure from a hundredth of the no-effect level in animal tests to a thousandth, mainly because of the "unknowns" in comparing animal test results to human risks.
Several pesticide companies are trying to reduce that comparison uncertainty by conducting a final round of tests on human volunteers.
THE TESTS are unlikely to present much danger to the volunteers. The amounts are small, there is virtually no risk of toxicity and the exposures are short.
Moreover, the human tests are conducted in the final stages of the registration process. If a company had any concern about the chemical's danger to humans, it wouldn't do human tests. (Failing such a test would surely lead to a ban.)
If we can conquer malaria—and then don't—society will carry the guilt of millions of deaths and tens of millions of pain-ridden, ruined lives.
If we unnecessarily ban safe pesticides merely to satisfy chemophobes, we will decrease crop productivity just as the world needs a threefold increase.
ATRAZINE is one of the chemicals on the environmentalists' "hit list." But there is no evidence of harm to people or the environment, even after decades of broad usage.
If we ban atrazine, we can expect more weeds in our fields, lower crop yields and more wildlands plowed for food production.
We could also see more soil erosion, since the loss of atrazine would increase the cost to farmers of using modern conservation tillage.
IT IS GOOD for the world to have a small fraction of its people prodding the rest of us to ensure humane treatment of animals.
It is good for the world to have some people irrationally fearful of man-made chemicals. This keeps us searching for chemicals with still greater safety and effectiveness.
If fringe groups stay on the fringes, they do little harm and perhaps a little good. However, if we let animal-rights activists and chemophobes make broad policy, society risks massive human and environmental losses.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.