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The European Coalition to End Animal Experiments (ECEAE) this week warmly welcomed an important move by the European Commission to remove the specific requirement for live rabbit tests for skin and eye irritation from the EU chemicals legislation, REACH.
These tests involve rubbing substances onto the shaved skin of rabbits or dripping it into their eyes. The animals can experience bleeding, ulceration, swelling, even burning and blindness.
Various alternatives for these tests were approved by the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM) in 1998, 2006 and 2007 and on a global setting by the OECD in 2004, 2009 and 2010. These include tests based on reconstituted human skin that test separately for corrosion and irritation.
Although these tests have been permitted to be used to replace the live rabbit tests since 2009, the legal text of REACH has remained unchanged. This means that chemical companies are unclear which test they have to do and, due to conservatism and historical acceptance, are more likely to continue using the rabbit test. In fact, the ECEAE estimates that in the five years since the alternatives to the rabbit tests were approved, in total, 14,000 rabbits have been used in new skin irritation tests and 10,500 rabbits in eye irritation tests across Europe.
The ECEAE has been asking the European Commission to update REACH since 2011 and finally this week, after our renewed efforts, the Commission submitted a proposal to the Member States at a formal meeting attended by the ECEAE. The UK government has already indicated its support for the proposals at the Chemical Stakeholder Forum in London last week, which the BUAV, UK member and secretariat of the ECEAE, attended.
The deletion of the legal requirement for the test will mean that it is crystal clear to chemical companies that they must no longer conduct the rabbit test to satisfy their obligations to test chemicals under REACH. Companies are currently testing their substances for the next REACH registration deadline and the ECEAE has estimated that, if the legal text is changed in time, up to 18,000 rabbits could be spared.
Dr Katy Taylor, who has been working on gaining regulatory acceptance of these alternatives since 2009 says, “We are delighted that the Commission has confirmed that it will finally be seeking to remove the requirement to test on live rabbits for REACH. We are extremely frustrated that it has taken over 5 years for this to happen. But thanks to our persistence in pushing this forward, the move has the potential, if realised in time, to save the lives of up to 18,000 rabbits. We urge the Commission to seize this opportunity to do the right thing for animals by swiftly implementing this positive measure.”
Although this is an enormous step forwards, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure the legal requirement to conduct the animal tests is in fact deleted.