Whatever Andrew Wheeler’s True Motives, He Deserves Praise for Moving EPA Away from Animal Testing

Posted in: Animal Rights

In a memorandum issued last week, Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reported on directives to substantially reduce government funding for and mandating of animal testing of chemicals to which humans might be exposed. When he publicly announced the initiative, Wheeler distributed a column he wrote over three decades ago for a college newspaper in which he also called for reduced animal testing. He then told the assembled crowd that one of his sisters is a zoologist and another is a veterinarian. What has any of that to do with the new announcement?

Questioning Wheeler’s Motives

The short answer is that some public health and environmental groups questioned Wheeler’s motives. By providing evidence of his longstanding and familial commitment to animal welfare, Wheeler was trying to establish that the new EPA policy reflects genuine concern for animals and is not the product of an ulterior motive to deregulate industries that produce chemical products.

The questions about Wheeler’s motives are fair for three reasons. First, Wheeler is a former coal industry lobbyist, a climate-change skeptic, and a non-scientist. Wheeler has a law degree and an MBA; his only scientific training is his undergraduate joint major in English and biology. Although a competent administrator can run an agency by deferring to its expert staff without sharing their expertise, Wheeler’s anti-regulatory ideology and his weak grasp of basic concepts of science give no indication that this is how he has been proceeding at EPA.

Second, Wheeler was appointed by and serves under Donald Trump, whose administration has shown a penchant for pretextual agency initiatives. Trump wanted a Muslim ban, so he issued a proclamation barring entry to the U.S. by nationals of various majority-Muslim countries, which, when invalidated by the lower federal courts, was reframed by his  Departments of State and Homeland Security in facially neutral national security terms. Trump wanted to undercount Democratic-leaning nonwhite voters by deterring immigrant households from answering the Census, so his Departments of Treasury and Justice pretended that they needed citizenship information to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Trump himself lies about everything, even the weather. Against this backdrop, it is reasonable to ask whether animal protection really explains Wheeler’s move on animal testing.

Third, there is some evidence that deregulation may in fact be a goal of reduced animal testing. In July, The Intercept reported that EPA staff emails obtained via the Freedom of Information Act showed that chemical industry representatives were in favor of reducing animal testing. The article states that the industry would thereby save money. It also quotes a scientist (who experiments on mice in his own work) claiming that an industry-friendly EPA would eliminate animal testing for the very purpose of failing to detect some risks that cannot be detected any other way, thereby allowing marketing of unsafe chemicals that might be detected by animal experimentation.

Do Motives Matter?

The coziness between the chemical industry and the Trump/Wheeler EPA furnishes grounds for skepticism regarding the animal-testing-reduction plan and every other policy the current administration favors. But questionable motives alone should not be grounds for opposing this initiative if it would produce a net benefit.

Certain illicit government motives are grounds for deeming a policy unlawful, even if the same policy would be permissible if adopted for a benign reason. For example, the Supreme Court ought to have struck down (but instead narrowly upheld) the travel ban, because it was rooted in Trump’s religious (anti-Muslim) animus. Meanwhile, the Court did invalidate the citizenship question, which was based on calculated ethnic discrimination.

However, industry “capture” of the agencies charged with regulating those industries is not like religious, racial, or ethnic discrimination. Such capture is a genuine and serious problem, but it does not invalidate the outputs of federal administrative agencies. If it did, just about every deregulatory program would be invalid.

Of course, even if the courts do not strike down agency outputs that reflect industry capture, concerned citizens and government watchdog groups rightly oppose such outputs. And they are rightly skeptical of just about every deregulatory output to come from the Trump administration. But skepticism should be a starting point, not an end point.

Unnecessary Animal Testing

New products should not be tested on animals if such testing provides no benefit to humans. Why not? Because rats, mice, dogs, cats, monkeys, and other animals suffer and die in experiments. Even people who do not generally support animal rights regard the infliction of unnecessary suffering and death on animals as wrong.

Indeed, even if one were to place no moral weight at all on animal wellbeing, one ought to oppose unnecessary animal testing, which wastes public resources. For that reason, libertarians concerned about wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars have joined forces with animal advocates to oppose government expenditures of “over $15 billion every year for wasteful and cruel experiments on dogs, cats, monkeys and other animals.”

One could even oppose government-funded and government-mandated animal experimentation without caring about animals or wasteful spending. Why? Because ineffective animal testing actually harms human health. The EPA is not the only federal agency that relies on animal testing. New drugs must also be tested on animals. Yet given what one researcher aptly calls “the discordance between human diseases and animal models of diseases,” such testing is typically worse than pointless. A systematic review found that “animal experiments were no more likely than a flip of the coin to predict whether [the tested] interventions would benefit humans.” High rates of both false positives and false negatives show that successful testing on animals may bring to market products that prove unsafe to humans, while unsuccessful animal testing prevents the marketing of products that might have proven safe and effective for human use.

In light of the unnecessary harm inflicted on animals, the high dollar cost, and the high cost to human health, there is an urgent need to find better, more reliable means of testing the relative cost/benefit profile of new products. And that is precisely what the Wheeler memo proposes. It jump-starts a process that would phase out animal testing as new methods shown to be “equivalent to or better than the animal tests replaced” become available.

Perhaps Wheeler really has pure motives. Or perhaps he, the Trump administration, and industry groups have ignoble reasons for supporting the new policy. It shouldn’t matter. Even viewed skeptically, the policy is win-win-win: better for the animals spared experimentation; less costly to the public fisc; and better for human health.