THE THREAT of an increase in animal experiments was signalled last week when it was revealed that new European rules will force companies to do safety tests on 30,000 man-made chemicals. This will lead to a massive rise in "pointless" animal experiments, it was claimed.
Animal welfare groups say the proposed legislation, which came after pressure from environmentalists, will see ten million animals used to prove the safety of chemicals - many of which have been around for hundreds of years.
Although the legislation is intended to target potentially dangerous products, it could also force companies to spend thousands of pounds demonstrating that vinegar, baking soda and salt are safe, scientists say.
An unlikely alliance of industry, scientists, animal welfare campaigners and trade unionists have condemned the proposals as bureaucratic and unnecessary.
The new testing regime is designed to replace the current European laws on chemical testing, regarded by many as unworkable.
Earlier this month the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution warned that existing laws were a "gigantic experiment with all living things" and called for safety checks on about 30,000 chemicals.
If the new rules are approved by the European Parliament next year, companies will have to register all chemicals produced within the European Union and prove that they are safe.
Depending on how much of the chemical is produced, companies will have up to 11 years to carry out tests. The greater the amount of chemical produced, the more stringent the safety data required. Chemists say the law is clumsy and fails to target the chemicals thought to be most risky.
Prof David Taylor of the Royal Society of Chemistry said: "The basic principles are fine. The problems relate to the procedures.
"The system needs to be prioritised. You need to look at the chemicals where you need better data. There's no need to have new data on sodium chloride or acetic acid to get better information about the salt and vinegar on offer in fish and chip shops."
The lack of prioritising means established chemicals, such as baking soda, methylated spirits, glycerol and even alcohol would be covered by the rules.
Dr Jennifer Dandrea, from the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments, said the new law could see between 1.2 million to 12 million more animal tests in Europe.
"Some substances have a very low hazard," she said. "For them to be tested on animals is pointless."
The consultation period for the draft legislation ends this week. The proposed law will be discussed over the summer and go before the European Parliament next year.
The Chemical Industries Association said many of the chemicals produced in the EU were used up or converted in the manufacturing processess and never reached the consumer or environment.
Dr Judith Hackett, the director general, said the testing regime would cost between £4 billion and £5 billion over the next decade.
"No one argues with the principle," she said. "However, in the detail, they have failed to come up with a workable piece of legislation."
l Earlier this year, pro-vivisectionists claimed victory when a MORI poll showed that more people were in favour of animal experimentation than four years ago. According to the Mori survey, 90 per cent of people give conditional backing for vivisection in science, compared with 84 per cent in 1999.
According to the survey, the public are also more willing to trust scientists not to cause unnecessary suffering and have greater confidence in regulations covering animal research than they did four years ago. However, the poll also found that suspicion and mistrust of scientists involved in animal experiments was high, and that a large number of people still oppose the use of genetically engineered animals in research.
The poll was commissioned by the Coalition for Medical Progress, a new alliance of organisations formed to put the case for vivisection in science.
l Around 2.7 million "procedures" are carried out on animals each year in Britain. Most involve mice, rats, fish and birds. Using animals to test cosmetics has been illegal since 1997. Philip Connolly, the director of the coalition, said: "The public is overwhelmingly prepared to support animal research, but they still need to know more. Those questioned want high welfare standards, avoidance of suffering, non-animal methods if they are available and strict regulation."