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SCIENCE: Life in the Lab Can Be Cruel
Francesca Colombo*

MILAN, Aug 10 (Tierramérica) - Scientific experimentation with animals is controversial in Italy, not only because thousands of living beings are sacrificed for this purpose each year, but because many consider the practice useless.

The defenders of animal rights demand a ban on such experiments, but many biologists assure that the tests use procedures that prevent unnecessary suffering, and pharmaceutical producers argue that without experiments on animals the cures for many human diseases could never be found.

Estimates are that each year some 100 million animals are used in experiments worldwide. In Europe there are 50 million animals that face being utilised in lab tests.

The biological effects of some 30,000 chemical substances are studied in mice, rats, monkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs or dogs, according to a report by the Italian League Against Animal Vivisection (LAV for its Italian initials).

The report says that in Italy some 70,000 animals are killed each year in experiments, and that 70 percent are rats and mice because they are easy to handle, occupy little space in the labs, and reproduce quickly, with 50 to 100 offspring annually.

The authors of the LAV study underscore what they say is the cruelty and futility of testing the toxicity of medications or other products, in which the animals are forced to ingest or inhale such things as varnish, pesticides, disinfectants and glues, or the substances are tested on their skin and eyes to determine levels of corrosion or irritation.

Nausea, diarrhoea, trembling, behavioural disturbances, convulsions, or even death are caused to the animals from exposure to benzene, asbestos, methanol, gasoline or dioxins.

"The animals pay the price of the experiments. They are considered objects, not subjects with rights. They suffer and end up with anaemia, convulsions or internal haemorrhage. In the end they die, or are killed," Roberto Bartocci, head of LAV's lab animal unit, told Tierramérica.

But the director of the developmental biology laboratory at the University of Pavia, Carlo Alberto Redi, believes that today's researchers are more sensitive to the matter, and there are greater efforts to avoid ill treatment of animals, especially among the younger generations of scientists.

"Today there is greater respect for the animal world, although in some situations it is essential to use living beings to test medications that cure diseases," Redi said in a Tierramérica interview.

In his laboratory, he works with around 3,000 mice a year. Each one is registered and a clinical history for each mouse is maintained. The laboratory undergoes frequent inspections and each experiment must be authorised by the Ministry of Health, Redi explained.

Animal rights defenders allege that the utility of many animal experiments is "zero", because the substances don't have the same effect on all species. For example, aspirin causes congenital defects in dogs, penicillin kills guinea pigs, and fluoride is carcinogenic in rats -- but all are useful to human health.

And inversely, many animals do not develop the diseases that afflict humans, for which cures are being sought.

Prolonged exposure to benzene can cause leukaemia in humans, but that doesn't happen with animals.

Asbestos causes malignant tumours, known as mesotheliomas, in the lungs and abdomen, as well as serious and chronic respiratory illnesses in humans, but animals have to be exposed to a concentration 100 to 1,000 times greater in order to develop that type of cancer of the protective layer in most internal organs.

Furthermore, activists argue that experiments with animals have brought disastrous consequences for humans. Thalidomide was sold as a sedative and to treat morning sickness in pregnant women, after animal testing suggested it was safe. But the medication produced more than 12,000 cases of deformities in babies.

Other examples, say animal rights defenders, include Oprene, used to alleviate arthritis pain, which killed 61 people and caused serious adverse reactions in another 3,500 people; and Clioquinol, an anti-diarrhoea medication that caused 30,000 cases of paralysis, blindness or death in Japan.

But if these animal experiments do not ensure safety or effectiveness for humans, why do they continue to take place?

Animal rights activists say the reason is commercial, and in Italy, for example, is related to the 16 companies accredited by the Ministry of Health to conduct toxicity tests.

One such company is Italfarmaco, which works for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, has affiliates in five countries, employs 1,400 people and does an average of a million dollars in business a day.

The company declined to comment to Tierramérica on its experiments with animals.

LAV will ask the European Parliament to prohibit animal testing, but some experts say such a measure is unnecessary. Luciano Caprino, pharmacology professor at the University of Rome I, told Tierramérica "the laws that regulate experimentation on animals are precise and well developed, and if someone doesn't heed them, the scientific work is not published and the health authorities don't approve the procedure."

Currently the European Parliament is considering the bill known as Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals, drafted in 2003 and better known by its initials, REACH.

Once the bill becomes law, it would force producers and importers of chemical substances to register in a central database the information about ownership, type of usage and procedures for safe use.

The declared objective of the bill is to protect health and the environment, but also the competitiveness of the European Union's chemical industry, which moves approximately 607 billion dollars a year and employs 1.7 million people.

* Francesca Colombo is a Tierramérica contributor. Originally published Aug. 6 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.

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