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  • Lauren Kim

How Animal Testing Harms The Environment



Introduction 

Animal testing is a common laboratory practice meant to assess the safety of market-bound medical/cosmetic products and to research potentially harmful diseases, taking an estimated 25 million animal lives every year [1]. This common form of testing is typically conducted on a wide variety of animals including (in order of decreasing use) mice, rats, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, farm animals, dogs, primates, and cats. While the most popular arguments against animal testing deal with ethics and the violation of animals’ rights, there is also an environmental basis for refusing to support this practice. 


So what are the environmental impacts of animal testing? And what alternative test subjects can we use to replace animals when researching the diseases and drugs that we continue to discover everyday? Let's find out together!


Why We Still Use Animal Testing

First of all, if animal testing is not only cruel but also environmentally unsustainable, then why do we continue this practice at all? Well...

  • It Has Historically Been Effective: The California Biomedical Research Association (CSBR) states that almost every medical treatment/cure uncovered within the last 100 years developed directly out of animal testing. The use of animal testing is accredited for many breakthroughs in treating breast cancer, leukemia, cystic fibrosis, etc.


  • Animals Are Very Close Substitutes For Human Test Subjects: Chimpanzees share 99% of the same DNA as humans and even mice are, surprisingly, 97.5% genetically similar to us [2]! This means that if companies don’t want to use humans to test out new vaccines with potentially harmful side effects, animals are the “next best thing” to predict similar reactions.

  • Something I have to add on to this point, however, is that animals almost never accurately reflect human reactions to tested products—statistically, 94% of drugs that pass animal testing trials fail in human clinical trials [2] and there have been real disasters in the past from mistaking animal-safe products as equal to human-safe. A famous case of this mix-up is the story of thalidomine, which you can read about in the linked article.


How does Animal Testing Affect our Environment?

We have seen why animal testing remains popular in product testing and disease research today, but how does it damage our environment?

  • Incineration of Carcasses & Toxic Gas Pollution: After finishing tests, most laboratories dispose of dead animal carcasses by incinerating/burning them to save landfill space. Most of the waste that these labs throw out contains toxic chemicals, so incinerating these bodies would essentially vaporize the toxins that the animals have taken in and emit them into our atmosphere, contributing significantly to air pollution. Just imagine taking a deep breath of dead rat with a hint of some testing chemicals… yeah, not pretty for our health OR the environment. Admittedly, there is no published data revealing how many animals are disposed of through incineration after they undergo testing, but we can assume that it is common because many animal research facilities have their own incinerators on-site [4]. 


  • Loss of Biodiversity: Earth’s current rate of species loss is 50-500 times higher than historically natural rates that are derived from fossil records, so taking animals from the wild and forcing them to live in laboratory settings may be one of the culprits of declining biodiversity [4]. One specific case testifying to the loss of biodiversity can be seen with long-tailed macaques, the most commonly used species of monkey in labs. Macaques are often caught with false permits and bred forcefully in artificial settings; now they are currently labeled “Vulnerable”, which is only one step away above “Endangered”, on the IUCN Red List [5]. Like other alterations to natural biodiversity, these man-made changes to animal population dynamics consequently disrupt our ecosystems’ ordinary balance.


  • Food Waste: Labs need lots of food to feed the millions of animals they are testing, which can generate lots of unnecessary waste. According to the National Institutes of Health, animal testing facilities generated a whopping 1.5 million pounds of waste between 2011 and 2013, including the aforementioned thrown-away food [6]. There isn’t a lot of data on how much waste animal testing produces in general, but it is apparent that this practice does more environmental harm than good.


  • Excessive Consumption of Energy and Space: On a square-meter basis, animal research facilities consume up to ten times more energy than the average office because they have to invest in power-intensive equipment, efficient ventilation, and protecting the animals from external pathogens on top of regular utilities such as lighting [6]. Oftentimes, power plants burn fuel to create the energy that animal research facilities highly demand, but this process emits lots of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants.


A Pair of Long-Tailed Macaques


What can we do?

Animal testing is generally discouraged for both ethical and environmental reasons, so what are some ways that we can oppose this practice?

  • Start Supporting Alternative Research Methods: In vitro (testing on human cells/tissue cultured in petri dishes) research methods are being developed with the hopes of phasing out animal testing and alternative research materials, such as artificial human skin from EpiDerm and ThinCert, are now on the rise [2]. If we can refine these technologies, using synthetic human skin will be more environmentally sustainable, accurate, and generally safer than using animals.


  • Promote Laboratory Animals’ Safety: Animals that come out of laboratories should be sent to sanctuaries or adoption homes instead of being forcefully disposed of. Although sending tested animals creates a risk of further spreading toxic pathogens and chemicals, healthy animals should be sent to safe homes, protected under government management. See if there are any nearby shelters that take in test animals and please show them your support!


  • Advocate for Stronger Protective Legislation: The U.S. currently regulates animal testing through its Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which requires that “certain animals” under testing be treated with proper housing, treatment, veterinary care, food, and water. However, these “certain animals” only make up 5% of all tested animals, so we need to squeeze in the remaining 95% to also receive protections by the AWA (assuming that we don’t get rid of animal testing altogether)!


  • Support Cruelty-Free Products: Be careful about this one—while you might be proud to take home your new lotion that's labelled "Cruelty-Free", the U.S. Food and Drug Administration actually does NOT regulate the truth of these kinds of labels, so these “Not Tested On Animals” logos can be still displayed on animal-tested products! You can find lists of companies that do/don’t use animal testing and even search for certain companies here.



Thank you for reading today, and I hope you found this article interesting! Just remember, our Earth is worth saving and we can all work together to preserve our environment! 

Note: Bracketed numbers next to certain texts (e.g. [1], [2], etc.) indicate that the aforementioned information in the article is derived from the corresponding source in the References below.


References

 [1] Animals used in biomedical research FAQ. https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/animals-used-biomedical-research-faq.

[2] Pros & Cons - ProCon.org. (2020, June 10). https://animal-testing.procon.org/.

[3] Contreras, D. (2018, January 29). Rescue Beagles: A Life Away From The Lab. NPR Illinois. https://www.nprillinois.org/post/rescue-beagles-life-away-lab.

[4] Corbett, R. (2019, September 16). Animal Research: An Environmental Perspective. https://faunalytics.org/animal-research-an-environmental-perspective/.

[5] Eudey, A., Kumar, A., Singh, M. & Boonratana, R. 2020. Macaca fascicularis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T12551A17949449. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-2.RLTS.T12551A17949449.en

[6] Shroff, J. (2016, November 11). The Significant Impact of Animal Testing on the Environment. Jai Shroff's Blog. https://jaishroff.wordpress.com/2016/11/15/the-significant-impact-of-animal-testing-on-the-environment/.

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