EPA Takes a Giant Step Backwards

Talk about government bungling. In its latest act of folly, the Clinton-Gore Administration has launched a multimillion dollar campaign to have butane, turpentine, and other known poisons tested on animals.Is this in the least bit necessary? Is there really anyone alive who considers butane and turpentine safe?Of course not, but the feds seem to have their own reality. Last October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- deciding it needed more data on 2,800 commonly used industrial chemicals -- launched a six-year effort to coerce manufacturers into testing them on animals. Dubbed the "High Production Volume Challenge," the campaign targets all chemicals manufactured or imported in quantities of 1 million pounds or more.Egged on by Vice President Al Gore and the Environmental Defense Fund, the EPA is giving chemical manufacturers until the end of the year to voluntarily agree to fill in the gaps, or submit to tougher regulations. Unfortunately, like other ill-advised fast-track programs, this one was dreamed up without much public discussion.What the public might have found curious is the surprising amount of information already available about these substances, making further tests inappropriate and unnecessary. In fact, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has discovered that some of the screening data that EPA claims is missing simply isn't. In true bureaucratic fashion, the feds seem to have overlooked some of their own databases!Our researchers, for instance, were puzzled to learn the EPA feels it's lacking data on tetraethyl lead, the antiknock agent in leaded gasoline. We know of extensive human data proving this toxic substance to be a recognized carcinogen, reproductive toxicant, and developmental toxicant. Indeed, is there a parent out there who wouldn't call Poison Control if his or her kid swallowed some? What possible use could more studies serve?In our brief review of EPA's list, we found the same story with other chemicals, carbon tetracholoride and turpentine to name just two. The agency claims it needs more data but we found ample evidence both substances are toxic.Taxpayers may also be dismayed (if not surprised) to learn the program is expensive. Not only is EPA likely to spend $11.5 million administrating it, but manufacturers estimate their costs would run between $500 million and $700 million. (Some firms have raised objections, but they worry about appearing anti-green by doing so publicly yet.)Paying most dearly will be the animals made to ingest these poisonous chemicals. (Methods include force-feeding, inhalation, and direct application.) An estimated 120,000 birds, 531,000 rabbits, mice, and rats, and 120,000 fish will lose their lives after undergoing these gruesome experiments.It's abundantly clear EPA has rushed into this program without carefully analyzing what information already exists -- both in the public and private sectors.In fact, EPA is clearly ignoring its mandate to avoid duplicative testing by not forcing manufacturers to produce privately held information. Moreover, it's showing a total disregard for animal suffering by requiring manufacturers to use the extremely cruel "lethal dose" (LD-50) experiments, which determine what dose kills half the test animals.What's especially ironic is that we already have much better data at our fingertips. For years, emergency rooms have recorded information on human exposures from accidents, suicide attempts, and other incidents. Ignoring this data isn't just wasteful, it's bad science.If, after a methodical review, EPA determines critical data truly is missing, it should require human and cellular tests rather than animal ones. Research has shown human cell tests are significantly more accurate than mice and rat tests in predicting human toxicity.In fact, relying on unpredictable animal tests can actually harm human health. If a chemical doesn't demonstrate harm to an animal, it could appear to be safer than it really is, prompting regulators to leave it on the market.If this administration wants to protect human health, reduce wasteful expenditures, and avoid animal suffering, it must rethink the entire High Production Volume Challenge. Anything less is pure folly.Simon Chaitowitz, a Seattle health and environment writer in Seattle, works for the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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