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Chemical Reaction: The New Toxicology

By: Steve Herman
Posted: September 5, 2008, from the August 2006 issue of GCI Magazine.

“Let me give you one definition of ethics: It is good to maintain life and to further life; it is bad to damage and destroy life.” —Albert Schweitzer

To test or not to test, that is the question. More precisely: to test on animals or not to test on animals—THAT is the question. Some requirements absolutely demand animal testing, while others absolutely ban it. Hamlet had it easy merely having to deal with evaluating information from the ghost of his father. The toxicologist is a modern Hamlet, finding truth and correct action to be an elusive and ever-shifting goal.

Everyone agrees on one point: safe is good. But “the devil is in the details,” and how safety is achieved is subject to passionate debate. Testing on humans is not usually an option, yet before people are exposed to a product, its safety must be established. Traditional methods involve animals, often many animals, and are often cruel, expensive and time-consuming. The “New Toxicology” seeks creative methods to arrive at valid results as humanely as possible.1 A few cute mice and bunnies will meet a bad end, but the full resources of biology and mathematical modeling are being used to create alternatives acceptable to regulatory agencies and consumers.

Any worthwhile subject is awash with acronyms. Some groups that the toxicologist must deal with are OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), ECVAM (European Center for the Validation of Alternative Methods) and ICCVAM (Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods). Responsibility for testing fragrance materials lies with RIFM (Research Institute for Fragrance Materials), which, in turn, reports to IFRA, (The International Fragrance Association).

Altweb,2 the Alternatives to Animal Testing Web site, gives a surprisingly rounded view of the field, promoting new methods without condemning the progress that has been achieved using animals. The resources on the site and the links provided are a great starting point for anyone seeking a fuller understanding of the subject.