Saturday 24 March 2018

Animal testing must stop

Pete Wedderburn Visit Pete's website at

WHEN I was a vet student, I witnessed a dog being deliberately bled to death. A Beagle, bred for use in the laboratory, was anaesthetised then connected up to a range of monitors, so that his respiratory rate, blood pressure and other parameters could be measured.

As students, we didn't know this was going to happen during the class. We watched, astonished, as the dog's blood was drained from his body. Predictably, his blood pressure dipped lower and lower, his heart rate went up, and his breathing became first more rapid, then slower, until it stopped. The dog died soon after. The animal didn't suffer - he was unconscious - but his life was taken on our behalf.

As students, we were appalled. What had been gained from the sacrifice of this animal's life? What had we learned that could not be learned from a textbook, or even a video? This episode was the catalyst to a student protest, and the university authorities understood and respected our point of view. The unfortunate Beagle was the last one to die in this way.

The number of animals being used for live experiments like this hit a peak in the 1970's, shortly before the above episode took place. At around that time, the public began to object to the indiscriminate use of animals in scientific laboratories. There was then a significant rejigging of the relevant legislation. Animal experiments do still happen, but not in the same way as they did in those days.

The issue of vivisection - experimenting on live animals - is controversial. Nobody likes the idea of using living, sentient creatures as subjects for experiments. Yet at the same time, we live in a meat-eating society, where the lives of animals are taken every day, just to satisfy our appetites.

There are strict controls on animal experiments to minimise any discomfort or suffering, and to ensure that any tests are genuinely useful. If carefully controlled experiments on animals are needed to produce new medical treatments, it's difficult to argue against them. If a child was suffering from an unpleasant, life threatening illness, isn't it worth sacrificing a few hundred mice or rats if that's what it takes to find a cure?

But what about experimenting on animals for other reasons? What about experiments on animals to test the ingredients of cosmetics? Should these be allowed?

The obvious answer is "no": surely we already have enough established cosmetic ingredients. There must be effective ways of combining these safely without sacrificing thousands of animal lives to find newer, improved forms of eye shadow and lipstick?

In Ireland, this type of laboratory work is controlled via European legislation. The good news is that to date, the EU has been proactive in controlling the use of animal experiments for cosmetics. In 2004, the testing of finished cosmetic products on animals was banned. Then in 2009, a ban on testing cosmetic ingredients was introduced. At the same time, a Europe-wide ban was introduced on the sale of products that contained ingredients that had been tested on animals anywhere else in the world.

One loophole was left in place: there are five specific tests that are still allowed to be done on animals elsewhere in the world. This allows multinational cosmetics companies to continue their normal experimentation and development in countries that do not restrict animal experiments, then to export the product to the European market. As an example, in the USA, there are no prohibitions whatsoever on the use of animals for cosmetics testing.

This loophole is due to be removed in 2013: from that date, cosmetics companies will no longer be able to do any tests on any ingredients on animals at all, anywhere in the world, for products sold in the EU.

The EU commission is currently reviewing this 2013 deadline. Lobby groups acting on behalf of cosmetics companies are pressurising the commission to postpone it for another few years, for obvious commercial reasons.

This isn't about choosing between animals and human health. Keeping the ban on schedule for 2013 would not mean that shop shelves would contain untested or potentially dangerous products. The use of ingredients that have already been tested and are already on the market will not be affected. The impact, instead, will be on the ability to bring new ingredients and products to the market.So the choice is really about whether or not animals should be killed in order to bring a new scent of body wash or colour of lipstick to the marketplace. What do you think?

By the way, there are alternative, non-animal types of testing for new chemicals, including human cell, molecular and computer-based methods. In many cases these methods are quicker, cheaper, and provide results more relevant to humans than the animal tests. There is debate amongst scientists about their efficacy: one recent report, sponsored by the European Commission, felt that although these methods are not yet effective enough to fully replace live animal experiments in the full testing of new cosmetics, they are improving year by year. The deadline of 2013 would provide an effective spur to more rapid development of these methods. This would have a value beyond cosmetics testing: the same non-animal methods can also be used to test medical drugs and other chemicals, so their development would reduce animal tests for product safety in these areas too.

There's a place for cosmetics - they are part of our modern world. But newer, fancier ones? Not at the price of unnecessary animal suffering.