Boston — THE protests have finally begun to penetrate corporate boardrooms. For decades detergents, cosmetics, and other everyday products have been tested on animals. But that practice has been sharply challenged, especially in the last five years, by groups ranging from long-established humane societies to radical animal rights units, all of which have grown in membership and influence. As a result, testing procedures once accepted as routine are being nudged into the ``unacceptable'' and even ``obsolete'' range of corporate options.
Cosmetics and household products companies have become sensitive to the charge that thousands of animals were perishing in the rush to produce yet another lipstick or shampoo. Many of them, including some of the biggest -- Revlon, Proctor & Gamble, Lever Brothers, and Colgate-Palmolive -- have begun devoting various amounts of money to the search for alternative ways of testing what they produce.
But even with the gradual move toward alternatives, some of the methods most reviled by animal rights activists, such as the Draize eye-irritancy test performed on rabbits, continue to be widely employed.
The steam behind a move toward more humane testing procedures has largely been generated by animal welfare activists, longtime battlers of such laboratory procedures as the Draize method of putting cosmetic and hair-care ingredients in the eyes of rabbits and the killing of thousands of mice in toxicity tests.
Henry Spira, a New York-based activist who has long campaigned against product testing on animals, says the idea of alternatives to animal testing has moved ``away from a humane, flaky idea towards entering the mainstream.''
With that movement have come new freshets of corporate dollars.
Five years ago, for instance, Revlon contributed $750,000 to set up the Alternative Research Program at Rockefeller University's Laboratory Animal Research Center. The program's goal: development of an alternative to the highly controversial Draize test. Revlon recently renewed its funding of $200,000 for the current year. That's $5,000 less than last year, notes Dennis Stark, who directs the Rockefeller program.
More dollars will be needed to sustain what Dr. Stark terms a ``very productive'' effort. He has sought additional money from government agencies and from industry; the result so far, however, has been ``interest, but no funding.'' He says that the cell-culture work being done at Rockefeller has shown the possibility of non-animal testing for certain kinds of chemicals. But the full development of a proven alternative to the Draize test is still down the road.Better funding, he says, is the key to enlisting topscientific talent for the project.
Animal rights activist Alex Pacheco of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) attacks the corporate investment in alternatives as ``a token.''
``For every $30,000 in sales,'' he asserts, ``about a quarter [25 cents] is spent on alternatives.'' Annual sales of household products and cosmetics is many billions of dollars.
But the role of companies, particularly of the cosmetics industry, in the move toward more humane product-testing shouldn't be downplayed, insists Andrew Rowan of the Tufts University School of Medicine, a critic of animal testing and author of the 1984 book, ``Of Mice, Models, and Men: A Critical Evaluation of Animal Research.''
``If the truth be known,'' he says, ``the cosmetics industry has done more to change the way we do things than other . . . industries -- they deserve a few kudos.''
According to Page Blankenship of the Cosmetics, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CFTA), cosmetics firms to date have contributed $2 million to the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing alone. She points out, too, that the industry is supporting related programs at eight other schools. The overall figure on cosmetic industry investment in alternative testing is around $5 million, Ms. Blankenship says.
None of the companies contacted by the Monitor -- Lever Brothers, American Home Products, Gillette, Colgate, and Proctor & Gamble -- would give a dollar figure for how much they've devoted to the search for alternative testing methods. These companies also were unwilling to let a reporter tour their research facilities, citing such reasons as security, the need to preserve the sterile environment, and the need to avoid disrupting work.
Even if they don't open laboratory doors to reporters, animal welfare activist Spira says cosmetics makers have ``opened the door'' to testing alternatives. It was a door that needed some prying, however, and Spira's own grass-roots campaigns against the Draize test and the LD50 test -- an oral toxicity test -- have been instrumental in that effort.
Though a beginning has been made, the quest for alternatives to animal testing is still in its early stages. Researchers at Johns Hopkins and at Rockefeller are concentrating on the use of laboratory-grown organic material rather than live animals to assess the effect of chemicals.
The congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) recently published a massive report on alternatives to animal testing and experimentation. That report notes that 1985 amendments to the federal Animal Welfare Act, which take effect this fall, specify that training in ``methods that minimize or eliminate the use of animals or limit animal pain or distress'' must be made available to personnel involved in animal testing.
Household products companies contacted for this article insist their reliance on animal testing is already shrinking.
Linda Ulrey of Proctor & Gamble, for instance, says her company now uses an alternative to the ``standard Draize test.'' Substances to be tested are diluted down to one-tenth the strength used in past testing. This reduces the stress on the animals, she says, and the resulting safety data is just as valid. And P&G, as well as Colgate, has dropped the LD50 toxicity test altogether, according to company officials. Under that test, which was a standard procedure for decades, technicians would dose mice or rats until half of a given number died. As many as 200 mice or rats are used in a single test. Many companies have shifted to what's known as the ``limit-value'' toxicity test, which uses a much smaller number of animals.
The CTFA, an industry group, asserts that a poll of its members showed a 75 to 90 percent reduction over the last few years in the numbers of animals used in toxicity tests of their products.
The number of animals used in corporate laboratories vs. academic ones is difficult to ascertain. All registered research facilities are required to tell the USDA each year the number of animals they have. But the figures lump together all kinds of laboratories, both industrial and academic -- and, more important, they don't include statistics on mice and rats, the most commonly used animals. The USDA's total for 1984, the latest year available, was 2,074,000 animals used in research and testing. Extrapolating from USDA figures, the OTA report puts the number at ``at least 17 million to 22 million animals.'' Again, this includes all kinds of testing, including drug-safety assessment and medical research.
Some activists put the overall figure as high as 70 million, based, again, on the very partial USDA compilations, as well as the numbers of animals sold for research purposes. Dr. Rowan of Tufts puts the figure at 25 million. PETA's Mr. Pacheco says sales by animal breeding laboratories are ``skyrocketing.'' ``So how can the numbers be going down?'' he asks.
While agreeing there's a long way to go, others in the animal welfare field are optimistic. If you put progress toward alternatives on a scale of 1 to 10, ``we're probably at 5 or so in product testing,'' says John McArdle, director of laboratory animal welfare at the US Humane Society in Washington. ``We're barely at 1 in research,'' he adds, referring to the use of animals for experimentation in the physical and behavioral sciences.
Dr. McArdle, who was trained in anatomical science and took part in some animal experimentation early in his career, emphasizes some trends he considers hopeful. For example, the strong possibility, as he sees it, that a test using the embryonic membrane in a chicken's egg will replace the Draize test on rabbits' eyes. Another example he gives: computer simulations that draw correlations between molecular structure and toxicity. These simulations could greatly reduce the numbers of animals used to assess the potential harmfulness of new ingredients in products ranging from toothpaste and cleansers.
But a number of factors work against a quick transition from animals to other methods of testing household and personal-care products, such as the continuing perception that animal testing is the accepted standard in assessing the safety of a product.
The government requires that products undergo some kind of testing to assure safety. Sometimes the use of animals is specified, but not always. For example, cosmetics don't have to be tested on animals, but manufacturers do have to show that some kind of testing has been done. Otherwise, an item would have to carry the label: ``Warning: the safety of this product has not been determined.''
In the past and to a large extent now, ``testing'' meant ``animal testing.''
Another factor favoring continued use of animal testing is corporate worry over product liability suits. Company representatives had little to say on this subject. But McArdle says there's little doubt in his mind that lawyers and insurance companies are holding to the idea that animal testing is the ``standard'' businesses have to meet. He says he has had cosmetics executives tell him they'd like to stop testing but are afraid of jeopardizing their insurance.
Still, the biggest point in all of this, says Spira, is that tangible progess toward alternatives to animal testing is finally being made. There has been a ``big reduction,'' he insists, and research is holding out the hope of even greater reductions in animal testing in the future.
``People are looking at what they've done in the past,'' he says, ``and they're revising their procedures.''