Every day we come in contact with products that have the potential to harm human health. Food additives, adhesives, paints, fuel, pharmaceuticals and so on. Even the plastic toy that a baby might gnaw can be cause for concern. In North America, consumer products are tested for toxicity. This takes time, money, and, in many cases, the use of lab animals. But this is not a post about the ethics of using lab animals, which is a complicated issue that can quickly get heated, rather it is to talk about one alternative to toxicity testing that saves time and, yes, lab animals. (I’m not sure about money, but I suspect so.)
Last month, as part of an assignment with educational publisher, I was introduced to Tox21. This lab equivalent of Big Bird – an oversized bright yellow mechanical arm – is being used in the United States to test the toxicity of a wide variety of products, from food additives to pharmaceuticals to the chemicals used to disperse oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. And it works quickly. In just one day, the robot can run a number of tests that would take a human lab technologist a year. Rather than using animals, the Tox21 system tests how chemicals react with lab preparations of living cells. Tests show how chemicals in the products react with chemicals already present in living things.
Here’s a video of Tox21 at work.