There’s some awareness nowadays of the cruel and unnecessary practice of testing cosmetics on animals. Many people are questioning this practice and avoiding personal care products that are tested on animals, as well as those made from animal products. And that’s great. But what is less well known is the animal testing done for every type of chemical and product used in manufacturing and construction industries, and how bad it really is. Let me explain.
I work in a cabinetry shop. While that sounds great, and fine and creative, it’s not. We mostly assemble melamine and plywood into standard kitchen cupboards and medical office bureaus; the cupboards and countertops are covered with laminate surfaces. The whole process is not only a wasteful one – with 4′ x 8′ plywood sheets being cut into smaller pieces, much of the sheet is discarded – it’s also an extremely toxic one. To laminate plywood, the surface of the wood and of the laminate are sprayed with contact cement (neurotoxic). Overspray of the contact cement is cleaned up with paint thinner (target organ damage, carcinogenic). There is no ventilation in the shop to deal with the toxic fumes that emanate from these products. That’s along with the general dust of plywood and melamine particulate, which is not good for the lungs ~ and may contain formaldehyde!
My job is just a microcosm of the construction and manufacturing industries. Everywhere that new buildings are going up or products are being manufactured, toxic chemicals are frequently used, and in smaller or larger quantities. Companies will always choose the cheaper product available, and most often that is the one with the highest environmental, health and safety costs. Companies worry about the bottom line, not about the health of their workers or the integrity of the environment. Unless they are very ethical companies (few and far between in the construction industry), or they are forced by government regulation and safety inspections to comply to minimum health codes. That’s in countries that even have health standards and government enforcement!
So what does this have to do with animal testing? Every toxic chemical that is used is – well – tested on animals. In Canada, several regulatory bodies govern the use and labeling of industrial chemicals. The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System regulates labeling and attempts to inform and train workers about the risks of working with hazardous materials. Material Safety Data Sheets are produced for each chemical, providing extensive information about the toxicity of the product – all of which has been determined by “‘relevant’ animal testing”. Especially eerie – and devastating – are the tests demanded for the LD50 and LC50 rating of a product.
The LD50 is the Lethal Dose of a product – how much of the chemical it takes to kill half (50%) of the animals exposed to it orally or on the skin. The LC50 is the Lethal Concentration of a product – how much of it dissolved in the air will kill half of the animals tested within a given time period.
So to be graphic about this, when you think about buying that new Ikea-type bookshelf you can think about a chamber of small animals being gassed in order to test the chemicals that went in to manufacturing that product. Because that’s literally what goes on. Even worse, not only are animals being tested, but the end product that comes out is not safe for humans – unlike cosmetics. Not only are animals killed to establish guidelines for safety, but also workers are continually exposed to these chemicals, which are still toxic despite the animal testing, and sometimes lethally so. Chronic exposure typically leads to long-term consequences like reproductive mutations, cancer, kidney failure, lung disease, or permanent neurological damage. Acute exposure (say, having some splashed on your eyes, or accidentally ingesting paint thinner that’s been off-poured into a drinking container for ease of application) can also lead to severe long-term consequences (like permanent blindness or death).
The demand for cheap products can have unintended consequences. When you buy cheap manufactured goods or have home renovations done with industrial materials you may be demanding environmental destruction, worker exposure to toxic chemicals, and animal testing just for the sake of your own convenience.
So what to do? There are several choices.
1. Don’t buy it. Make do with what you have, or buy second-hand goods, furniture or construction materials, to not contribute to the demand for toxic industrial processes and chemicals. Make do with less. You don’t need all those fancy do-dads and new renovations, do you? If you do, take care where they come from:
2. Buy ‘responsible’ goods. For sometimes a substantially higher price, you can buy paints that are more ecological, paint strippers that are biodegradable, furniture that has been produced in a responsible manner without the use of toxic chemicals. Ask questions. Find out if toxic chemical products, animal testing and worker exposure are built in to what you are buying. Support ecological construction companies – those which specialize in rammed-earth technology to replace concrete (another toxic product), or who build with recycled or sustainably sourced materials, such as blown cellulose insulation in place of fiberglass. It will cost you, but not as much as your conscience. But make sure to get references from previous clients, as a company that is ‘eco-friendly’ is not guaranteed to be one with good installation or customer service. Protect yourself from shoddy workmanship, and help the natural building industry evolve by supporting good companies.
3. Do It Yourself. Find wood or old fixer-uppers from second-hand stores and figure out how to fix them yourself to your liking. There is plenty of information out there on the internet on how to do home projects; everything from building a butcher’s block to constructing a sofa to refinishing a bathroom. If there are permaculture folks in your area, chances are they are specialists at working with natural materials such as strawbale and cob to build everything from outhouses to family houses. If you need a bigger project done, take advantage of community connections – gather together friends and volunteers to build something and learn as you go (just don’t forget to buy them beer for their efforts). After all, a few short generations ago we all used to be do-it-yourselfers – people making do with what they had available to create what they needed for their homes and lives. We moved into a new home and made all our interior modifications using junk and old wood salvaged from the garage – hand-modified, and stained with flax oil, a non-toxic and environmentally benign product. We have a beautiful kitchen island, wooden beams that fake a farm-homestead look, and homemade furniture from scraps of wood and refinished throwaways. Our home is warm and rustic and a little rough, and we love it that way!
4. Share knowledge. Not many people know that so much animal testing, and so many toxic chemicals, go into their everyday purchases. Help create a social conscience that will demand the rights of workers to enjoy full health and safe workplaces, and animals to go free without being bred to die in horrible ways, and products that can be relied upon to not have exploited or poisoned someone during their manufacture. Here are the Canadian MSDS standards for toxicological research. What I’m telling you is not made up!