Animal experimentation for environmentalist purposes

Animal experimentation for environmentalist purposes

Many animals are killed for environmental research in the name of conservation and environmental safety. Animals may die in experiments that are carried out in the field. The “field” refers to the ecosystem being studied, which is actually the home of the animals living in it. A large number of animals are also killed in laboratories where chemicals are tested to determine their effects on ecosystems.

In addition to environmental groups, some government agencies are involved in this kind of research, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

One prominent environmentalist organization that has strongly supported animal experimentation is the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). This group has been lobbying heavily around the world for more experimentation on large numbers of animals to test the impact of different chemicals on the environment. Because of these activities, the WWF has been strongly criticized by organizations that defend nonhuman animals.

Other environmentalist advocacy organizations that lobby for animal experimentation show a clear conflict between conservation efforts and the defense of animals as sentient beings. These entities include the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN), the Sierra Club (SC), the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Friends of the Earth (FOE).

What matters to environmental organizations that advocate for lethal testing on animals is the conservation of ecosystems, species, and the best interests of humans. Such experimentation would never be permitted on human beings due to the harm it would cause them. Yet the main reasons it would be harmful to humans are the same reasons it would be harmful to nonhuman animals: the great pain, emotional distress and loss of life. This disregard of nonhuman animals is speciesism, or discrimination against those who do not belong to a particular species.

Animals suffer a great deal in nature. Unfortunately, chemical testing is not aimed at helping nonhuman animals but at furthering the purposes mentioned above. If humans were concerned with the interests of animals and the impact of testing on their habitats, we wouldn’t cause more suffering and death by our experiments. Instead, we would investigate ways we can help animals in the wild.

Environmental research in the U.S.

In the U.S. there are several institutions that carry out animal experiments for environmental reasons. Regulatory agencies are responsible for the introduction of large programs even when they are not required by law. When Congress introduces legislation ordering tests to be carried out, that legislation does not require that the tests be performed on animals. However, regulatory agencies require tests to be on animals anyway for several reasons:

1. There is simply a tradition of testing on animals, and, with already established relationships and methods, there is an inertia for this tradition to persist even when there is no active resistance to changing it.

2. Those who carry out the experiments may have financial interests in animal testing. Many executives in these agencies come from positions in the animal experimentation industry.

3. Animal testing is perceived to be reliable by many people, even though there are other effective methods of performing experiments available. For this reason, those who perform testing may feel that experimenting on animals will reduce their risk of liability for unanticipated effects the chemicals may have upon humans.

One of the institutions that use the most animals in environmental experiments is the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). This agency is in charge of many experiments that test the potential hazards that chemicals present to the environment and it establishes what levels of chemicals create unacceptable risks. The agency has been criticized on the grounds that it has a double standard: it does not require validation of experiments that use animals, but experiments that do not use animals must be validated.1

While the US EPA has carried out much of its research in its own laboratories in Ohio and North Carolina, it also pays other private laboratories to carry out certain experiments. Another important part of environmental research in the United States is conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is not the intent of this organization to do things that benefit animals, but “to conserve, protect, and enhance fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”2 This institution therefore carries out animal experimentation in order to learn how to better exploit animals in ways that benefit humans. The research carried out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has goals such as:

  • Studying ecological issues to maintain certain populations of animals in certain areas.
  • Whether and how to exterminate animals belonging to species that are not native to an area (or species that are unwanted in a certain area).
  • How to deal with animals that are considered “pests”.3

All this research adds up to a pattern of indifference towards harming nonhuman animals for the sake of human interests. Government agencies such as the US EPA, USDA, and US Department of the Interior invest very little to develop testing methods that do not use animals. Moreover, the environmentalist organizations mentioned above that want animal experiments to be carried out are not investing in these methods either, in line with the speciesist environmentalist positions they hold.

Endocrinological tests

The WWF has been relatively successful at pushing its agenda. For example, the US EPA has decided to develop a large-scale animal experimentation program to test the hormonal effects of chemicals. This program is called Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program.4 There is already much information amassed about the effects of many chemicals on hormones, but the WWF wants more information.

These tests aim to study the effects of different substances on the fertility and reproductive organs of animals. During the testing, animals are exposed to a specific chemical many times and monitored for abnormalities in sexual behavior, including: the creation of sperm and eggs, fertilization, development of the unborn baby animals, and activities of hormones. Animals in these studies are ultimately killed so that their reproductive organs can be examined.

Other tests that are done with chemicals on pregnant animals aim to assess the effects on the growth and development of their offspring. These experiments are performed by repeatedly exposing a pregnant rodent to a substance, sometimes for several generations. The children of these animals often die, and those that survive are often deformed.

Developmental neurotoxicity testing

The WWF has also lobbied the U.S. and Canadian governments to assess the “developmental neurotoxicity” of pesticides and other chemicals which would involve many more animals in injurious and deadly procedures. This would be in addition to the current pesticide testing, which already kills thousands of animals a year.

High Production Volume Challenge Program

An example of the success that environmentalist groups have achieved in lobbying for animal experimentation is the High Production Volume (HPV) Challenge Program. The HPV Challenge Program was started in 1998 and has studied the dangers related to large volumes of chemicals either produced or imported in the United States, provided that this occurs in quantities over around 450,000 kilos, that is, 1 million pounds, per year (and dozens of companies have been participating in this program).

Both the Environmental Defense Fund and the Chemical Manufacturers Association have advocated for the HPV Challenge Program, claiming that information was lacking about the effects of the most used chemicals in the United States. The testing involved experimentation on animals for many chemicals even though some of the chemicals had been deemed to be safe after years of regular use.5

The HPV Challenge Program was founded after meetings between the EPA and these two organizations. The program started in 1998, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only announced the program in the year 2000. Thus, it was not subjected to public comment and scientific review prior to its inception.In presenting this program, the EPA states that it was the American Chemistry Council, the environmentalist group Environmental Defense (formerly known as Environmental Defense Fund), and the American Petroleum Institute that participated in its launch.

Chemical testing in the European Union

The regulations of the European Union regarding chemicals are under the oversight of REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), which is under control of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). The REACH rules are meant to make it simple to detect chemicals that are very toxic so that they are withdrawn from the market. The REACH system is still in the process of being phased in.

According to the REACH rules, new chemicals that are produced in quantities greater than 10 kilos per year must be tested on animals. This means that huge numbers of animals will be killed for this purpose.6

The WWF has been putting pressure on the European Union to carry out this testing, since according to the WWF this “sets Europe on a modest step towards a new approach to chemicals regulation.”7

Regarding the European Commission’s testing of the hormonal effects of chemicals on animals, the WWF has stated “WWF agrees with the Commission’s acceptance of the need for precautionary action on endocrine disrupting substances in some cases, but is disappointed that the proposed strategy does not go far enough in this respect”.8

Examples of tests

The ways animals suffer and die for research purposes are varied. The following are some examples:

Tests to determine the genetic effects of chemicals

Chemicals may be force-fed to animals or injected straight into hamsters, mice and rats. Bone marrow and blood may be taken from the animal several times. Cells would then be taken from these samples to test for abnormalities. The chemicals the animals are injected with may cause animals a great deal of suffering. These chemicals may be irritant or very toxic, and they can cause pain, seizures and psychological distress.9

Tests to determine the potential for developmental toxicity

In order to try to assess the effects of chemicals on the nervous system of newborn rodents, pregnant female rats are force fed certain substances throughout their pregnancy and nursing period. Newborn rats are then put through a series of tests, in which they are killed. This developmental neurotoxicity test kills up to 2,500 animals with each round of study. Rabbits are also used for this purpose.10

Tests for ecotoxicity

To measure the ecotoxicity of a substance, fishes are commonly used. Fishes are contained in a tank into which chemicals are added. Each day a record is made of the number of deaths. Then, a calculation is made to determine the concentration of the substance that kills half of the fishes.11

Other animals, such as mice and dogs, are also used in ecotoxicity tests. They must endure repeated exposure to chemicals for up to three months for tests on the effects of the chemical on organ function. During these tests, animals may be force fed the chemical.

Testing for other toxins

Toxicity tests can vary widely. Additional tests may include:

  • The use of a tube or syringe to pump a substance straight into an animal’s stomach.
  • The use of restraint in gas chambers to force animals to inhale chemicals.
  • Placing fishes and toxic chemicals in tanks for time periods ranging from weeks to several months.

These tests can cause, among other things, bleeding from the genitals, convulsions, seizures, paralysis, diarrhea, poisoning, and death.

Testing methods that would not harm nonhuman animals

Many testing methods exist which are more friendly to animals. Following are some examples:

  • Experiments using cell cultures (in vitro tests that use cells or tissues rather than live animals) can replace acute toxicity tests since the effects of chemicals may be observable at a cellular level.
  • Silico (computer) test methods can replace acute toxicity testing in fishes. For each silico test, approximately 60 fishes would die in comparison to 2,500 in acute toxicity testing of fishes.
  • Instead of repeated dose toxicity testing on animals, procedures using cell cultures and mathematical models can be used.
  • Developmental toxicity tests on animals can be replaced by methods involving stem cells. Stem cell testing has already been validated as an appropriate method to measure embryotoxicity by the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods.12
  • In order to study genetic toxicity, experiments involving bacteria and in vitro tests can be used as an alternatives to live animal testing.13

Further readings

Brent, R. L. (1986) “Evaluating the alleged teratogenicity of environmental agents”, Clinics in Perinatology, 13, pp. 609-613.

Brent, R. L. (2004) “Utilization of animal studies to determine the effects and human risks of environmental toxicants (drugs, chemicals, and physical agents)”, Pediatrics, 113, pp. 984-995.

Deng, Z. D.; Carlson, T. J.; Li, H.; Xiao, J.; Myjak, M. J.; Lu, J.; Martinez, J. J.; Woodley, C. M.; Weiland, M. A. & Eppard, M. B. (2015) “An injectable acoustic transmitter for juvenile salmon”, Scientific Reports, 5 [accessed on 31 January 2015].

Dix, D. J.; Houck, K. A.; Martin, M. T.; Richard, A. M.; Setzer, R. W. & Kavlock, R. J. (2007) “The ToxCast program for prioritizing toxicity testing of environmental chemicals”, Toxicological Sciences, 95, pp. 5-12 [accessed on 6 March 2017].

Drobne, D. (1997) “Terrestrial isopods—a good choice for toxicity testing of pollutants in the terrestrial environment”, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 16, pp. 1159-1164.

Fan, A.; Howd, R. & Davis, B. (1995) “Risk assessment of environmental chemicals”, Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, 35, pp. 341-368.

Fano, A. (1997) Lethal laws: Animal testing, human health, and environmental policy, London: Zed.

Harrison, P. (2006) Chemicals in the environment: Assessing and managing risk, Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Kelce, W. R.; Monosson, E.; Gamcsik, M. P.; Laws, S. C. & Gray, L. E., Jr. (1994) “Environmental hormone disruptors: Evidence that vinclozolin developmental toxicity is mediated by antiandrogenic metabolites”, Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 126, pp. 276-285.

Lagadic, L. & Caquet, T. (1998) “Invertebrates in testing of environmental chemicals: Are they alternatives?”, Environmental Health Perspectives, 106, suppl. 2, pp. 593-611.

Sonnenschein, C. & Soto, A. M. (1998) “An updated review of environmental estrogen and androgen mimics and antagonists”, The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 65, pp. 143-150.

Soto, A. M.; Sonnenschein, C.; Chung, K. L.; Fernandez, M. F.; Olea, N. & Serrano, F. O. (1995) “The E-SCREEN assay as a tool to identify estrogens: An update on estrogenic environmental pollutants”, Environmental Health Perspectives, 103, suppl. 7, pp. 113-122 [accessed on 6 March 2017].

Walker, C.; Kaiser, K.; Klein, W.; Lagadic, L.; Peakall, D.; Sheffield, S.; Soldan, T. & Yasuno, M. (1998) “13th Meeting of the Scientific Group on Methodologies for the Safety Evaluation of Chemicals (SGOMSEC): Alternative testing methodologies for ecotoxicity”, Environmental Health Perspectives, 106, suppl. 2, pp. 441-451 [accessed on 22 December 2016].


1 Sandler, J. (2001) “Double standards on animal testing”, New Scientist, 2277, 10 February [accessed on 25 February 2017].

2 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2023) “About us”, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [accessed on 19 March 2023].

3 U.S. Department of the Interior (1984) Research and development policy / Procedures handbook, Washington, D. C.: U. S. Department of the Interior.

4 United States Environmental Protection Agency (2017) “Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP) overview”, Endocrine Disruption, United States Environmental Protection Agency [accessed on 15 April 2023].

5 Nicholson, A.; Sandler, J. & Seidle, T. (2004) “An evaluation of the US High Production Volume (HPV) chemical-testing programme: A study in (ir)relevance, redundancy and retro thinking”, Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, 32, pp. 335-342. Sandusky, C. B.; Even, M.; Stoick, K. & Sandler, J. (2006) “Strategies to reduce animal testing in US EPA’s HPV programme”, ALTEX – Alternatives to Animal Experimentation, 23, supp., pp. 150-152 [accessed on 7 February 2020]. Cardello, N. (2001) Analysis of the HPV challenge: Industry violations and EPA negligence, Washington, D. C.: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

6 Warhurst, A. M. (2004) The REACH files: A policy guide, Gland: WWF [accessed on 23 January 2023]. Brown, V. J. (2003) “REACHing for chemical safety”, Environmental Health Perspectives, 111, pp. A 766-A 769 [accessed on 3 January 2017]. Combes, R.; Barratt, M. & Balls, M. (2002) “An overall strategy for the testing of chemicals for human hazard and risk assessment under the EU REACH system”, Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, 31, pp. 7-19.

7 World Wide Fund for Nature (2006) “REACH: Alive but not kicking”, World Wide Fund for Nature, 13 December [accessed on 25 February 2021].

8 World Wide Fund for Nature (2000) “WWF’s response to the community strategy for endocrine disruptors”, World Wide Fund for Nature, 16/03/2000 [accessed on 28 February 2023].

9 Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2005) The ethics of research involving animals, London: Nuffield Council on Bioethics, sect. 4.52.

10 Ibid., sect. 9.23.

11 Johnson, W. W. & Finley, M. T. (1980) Handbook of acute toxicity of chemicals to fish and aquatic invertebrates, Washington, D. C.: United States Fish and Wildlife Service Resource Publication. Mager, E. M.; Esbaugh, A. J.; Stieglitz, J. D.; Hoenig, R.; Bodinier, C.; Incardona, J. P.; Scholz, N. L.; Benetti, D. D. & Grosell, M. (2014) “Acute embryonic or juvenile exposure to Deepwater horizon crude oil impairs the swimming performance of mahi-mahi (Coryphaena hippurus)”, Environmental Science & Technology, 48, pp. 7053-7061. King-Heiden, T. C.; Mehta, V.; Xiong, K. M.; Lanham, K. A.; Antkiewicz, D. S.; Ganser, A.; Heideman, W. & Peterson, R. E. (2012) “Reproductive and developmental toxicity of dioxin in fish”, Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, 354, pp. 121-138 [accessed on 22 February 2017]. Dayeh, V. R.; Bols, N. C.; Tanneberger, K.; Schirmer, K. & Lee, L. E. (2013) “The use of fish‐derived cell lines for investigation of environmental contaminants: An update following OECD’s fish toxicity testing framework no. 171”, Current Protocols in Toxicology, 1.5.

12 Developmental neurotoxicity tests using nonhuman animals have been criticized on the grounds that the tests used to look into the effects in animals are quite different from those that assess effects in humans. Developmental neurotoxicity tests record many things to do with the behavior of the animals, which has raised much concern on the grounds that there may be much room for individual interpretation of the testing results. The question of whether these criticisms are right or not, however, is different from the main issue at stake here consisting in whether it is acceptable to subject nonhuman animals to harmful procedures if humans would not be used for those aims.

13 In vitro genotoxicity test approved by the EU include among others the bacterial reverse mutation test (Ames test), the E. coli reverse mutation assay, the in vitro mammalian chromosome aberration test and the in vitro mammalian cell gene mutation test.