Many Americans would be surprised to learn that chimpanzees are still being used in biomedical research and that millions of other animals are utilized in consumer product and toxicity testing. Others may find a sense of security in knowing that this practice continues to provide information on which chemicals and products are deemed safe. The fact is that it doesn't have to be this way, and there are a number of public health, economic and animal welfare reasons to change our ways.

The evolving process by which the U.S. regulates chemicals is important to every American household. Increasing awareness of potential risks is key to ensuring the safety of American consumers, but what we don't know can hurt us, and there is a lot that we don't know despite advances in science.

Unfortunately, the current system for chemical testing is inconsistent and overwhelmed by the testing needs of an endless flow of new products and chemicals, causing a backlog of chemical assessments. Further, much of our system relies upon inconsistent results from animal testing. Policymakers have been slow to update the laws that govern chemical safety and to modernize the tests required by these laws.

Recent scientific advances offer to fundamentally change the way chemicals are tested for human health risks. These advances, which include in vitro testing, make it possible to rely less heavily on animal studies and instead focus on evaluating chemicals' effects on biological processes. Through this approach, scientists can generate improved data to evaluate risks while expanding the number of chemical assessments using less time and money and fewer animal subjects. Several federal agencies — the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health — embraced this approach and are working hard to further develop the science to make this vision a reality.

Earlier this year, an NIH working group proposed a plan to shift away from using chimpanzees as test subjects in their own studies, citing both technological advances and ethical concerns that had been raised in a study by the Institute of Medicine. The Institute of Medicine concluded that most current use of chimps was largely unnecessary. The working group plan called for the retirement of 300 chimps to a sanctuary where they can live out their lives. This is a welcome change and should serve to inform policymakers as we seek a chemical regulatory system that promotes public health, science and animal welfare.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also called into question the reliance on mice in medical research for three major, often-fatal conditions — sepsis, burns and trauma — because their responses are inconsistent with the human response. It is not only the mice that have suffered as a result; significant amounts of time and resources were squandered on ineffective testing, and opportunities to help patients with these conditions have been delayed.

Improved chemical testing is not only an issue of human and animal well-being but also one of enormous economic consequence. Embracing alternative methods for toxicity testing is an excellent way to provide evidence that chemicals are fit for use in commerce in an efficient, thorough and less expensive manner. Recently, the European Union introduced a complete ban on the sale of all new cosmetics if the cosmetic, or any component of the cosmetic, has been tested on animals, further making the American economic case for advancing alternative testing methods.

Going forward, we need to create a chemical testing system that allows families to enjoy a more risk-free environment, bolsters confidence in products we all use, and brings on-line exciting new testing methods that obviate whenever possible the need for animal subjects. The American public wants — and deserves — no less.

Rep. Jim Moran, a Democrat, represents Virginia's 8th District. Paul A. Locke, an environmental health scientist and attorney, is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Division of Molecular and Translational Toxicology. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Johns Hopkins University or the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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