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We often process information and advocacy about animal testing in “ethical” terms, but there are “utilitarian” reasons (or secondary harms) to consider even if one prioritizes the ethics. The Faunalytics website platformed a great 2014 study by a number of researchers on animal testing’s role in laboratory waste production, sourcepoint pollution, effects on lab workers’ health and biodiversity implications. Important insights included recognition that a single toxicity test project can use between 6,000 and 12,000 animals over the course of several years, and that animal testing is uniquely energy-intensive, requiring heavy ventilation, lighting, space to accommodate animals, and “barrier protection from outside pathogens”.

Moreover, animal testing uses a wide range of chemicals, including toxic and carcinogenic substances “for extended time periods and in large quantities.” The study’s authors pointed out that “millions of animal bodies — as well as supplies such as bedding, caging, needles, and syringes — are disposed of each year. The routine disposal of hazardous waste also produces harmful substances and air pollutants.” Animal carcasses and tissue themselves are contaminated and toxic, particularly after testing.

This “secondary” harm from animal testing, a harm that also befalls the non-human realm, is an interesting reminder of the multidimensional case against anthropocentrism — the view that humans are, if not the moral “center” of the universe, at least the subjects of primary concern and have an innate right to prioritize and exploit other forms of life. This larger insistence on decentering the anthropocene stands out and even goes beyond “environmentalism,” because in some instances standing up for nonhuman rights may itself harm the “natural” environment, such as the case against horse removal in the fragile ecosystems of the mountain west. Kristen Stilt wrote last year that “some environmentalists view the horses as ‘feral pests’ that damage the fragile ecosystem and compete with wildlife — and privately owned cattle — for resources.” But opponents say the rounding up of horses is needlessly cruel and that the cattle grazing those lands are no more entitled to do so.

Similarly, prioritizing the comfort and reducing the suffering of animals used for testing (an ethical consideration in favor of animals) is very energy-intensive, meaning the ecological impact of taking care of those individual animals tends to be high. The case for animal welfare in science is thus materially (if not essentially) at odds with the case for environmental protection — that is, unless we find alternatives to animal testing.

But the controversy over animal testing is still volatile because defenders of the practice insist there are no feasible alternatives, and that testing is necessary for the rapid development of vaccines. This is a timely enough argument that even the National Institute of Health, through its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases group, put out a statement last year titled, “The Important Role of Animal Research in mRNA COVID-19 Vaccine Development.” Not only are rodents critical to this process, according to the statement, but ” primates are used during the later stages of vaccine development and typically build upon the knowledge accumulated in earlier small animal studies.” This was critical to the 90-ish percent effectiveness of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, and with variations continuing to spread, modifications of these vaccines will require even more animal testing, according to NIH.
Meanwhile, though, animal testing continues to be environmentally harmful, its impacts largely unaddressed and unregulated. An Australian report suggests that the breeding and possible escape and mating with wild and native populations, are another potential complication. Like the report mentioned earlier, Australian researchers also point to “particulate matter, organic compounds, pathogens, and radioactive materials may be released as part of the incineration process and exposed into the surrounding environment.” Perhaps the competing needs of the pharmaceutical industry and the environment will soon prove incompatible, and new methods of research will need to emerge.