The image of a lab rat in a cage is familiar to many people. Now, that image might change. In a signed memo made public on Sept. 10, the Environmental Protection Agency stated their intent to reduce requests and funding for toxicity testing with live animals. The EPA’s administer, Andrew Wheeler, aims to reduce animal testing by 30 percent by 2025, and completely eliminate it by 2035.
Researchers have attempted to circumvent animal testing in the past by increasing the use of lab-grown cells or computer modeling, but there’s currently no true substitute for complex toxicity studies such as the effect of chemicals on reproductive systems. Most of the animal tests used by the EPA and other similar agencies are 50 years old, with no sign of changing. In fact, Wheeler wrote an op-ed for his college newspaper about the need to reduce animal testing back in 1987.
“I didn’t think we were that far away from banning animal testing then,” said Wheeler. “Part of why I’m doing this today is because it’s been 30 years and we haven’t made enough progress.”
Now, Wheeler is attempting to speed up the process by setting long-term deadlines for the EPA.
“I really do think that with the lead time that we have in this—16 years before we completely eliminate animal testing—that we have enough time to come up with alternatives,” said Wheeler.
The EPA announced that it will have an annual conference on the development of new methods, and has preemptively awarded $4.5 million to five universities in order to help develop these methods.
Wheeler signed the memo at EPA headquarters, surrounded by representatives from animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“This is the only government agency who has made such a commitment with an aggressive timeline,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues for the Humane Society. “We’d love to see other agencies embrace this approach of making timelines with goals.”
Former EPA senior official Penelope Fenner-Crisp, despite confirming that toxicologists have spent years attempting to reduce, refine, and replace animals in testing, is worried about the new deadlines being implemented without a suitable replacement for animal testing at the ready.
“I’m always a little troubled with deadlines on efforts like this,” said Fenner-Crisp. “You want to have replacements that are as good as or better than the ones that have been used with whole animals. And you can’t always dictate the timeline for accomplishing that.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, has also criticized the EPA’s plans, implying that chemical companies have lobbied Wheeler to take action to make toxicity testing standards more lax.
“[The] EPA is eliminating tools that lay the groundwork for protecting the public from dangers like chlorpyrifos, formaldehyde and PFAS,” NRDC scientist Jennifer Sass said in a written statement. “Phasing out foundational scientific testing methods can make it much harder to identify toxic chemicals — and protect human health. Once again, the Trump administration appears to be working on behalf of the chemical industry and not the public. Congress should bar the agency from blindfolding itself.”
Wheeler denied talking to any chemical companies prior to the decision, instead emphasizing his long-standing beliefs against animal testing that arose thanks to his eldest sister’s job as a zoologist and his younger sister’s job as a veterinarian.