Julia Sanchez

Julia Sanchez, an eighth-grader at Lincoln K-8 School in Rochester, prepares a petri dish to be viewed under a microscope Tuesday at the school. The students are conducting a study to determine if vape oils have any effects on zebrafish. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Dear Answer Man: I understand that PETA fired off a nasty letter to Lincoln K-8 Choice School Principal Jim Sonju demanding that the school end its practice of using zebrafish in its student science experiments. Is this true? Are zebrafish being harmed and tortured? — Worried About the Fish

Dear Worried About the Fish: We would say no, but the animal rights organization, never temperate in its language, disagrees. In both a press release and a Jan. 15 letter, it urged the school to "end these deadly experiments and to pledge never to test on animals again."

Here's a section of the letter:

"Dissolving zebrafish in vaping chemicals doesn't tell us anything about the effect of the liquid on human lungs, nor will it help stop the youth vaping epidemic. Instead, this experiment teaches students the dangerous lesson that animals are merely tools to be used, experimented on, and killed."

The PETA broadside came in response to local news coverage of the science experiments conducted by Lincoln students on the harmful effects of vaping. The stories described what happens to young zebrafish or zebrafish eggs when they are exposed to different levels of vape oil in water.

The experiments produced stunted eye growth and blood clots in the young zebrafish. In one test, "they just died," one student said.

PETA called the tests horrendous, harmful and irrelevant, and appeared to equate the experiments to school mass shootings. 

"As violence sweeps through our schools, the last thing students should be taught is that it's acceptable to treat animals as disposable test tubes and that killing sentient beings is OK," says Rachelle Owen, PETA director of student campaigns and influence. 

In an email, Sonju said he had not seen or received a letter or email from PETA. He referred questions to Chris Pierret, lead Mayo Clinic researcher with InSciEd Out Program, an evidence-based elementary and middle school program.

Lincoln's cutting-edge science program, a collaboration between Lincoln and Mayo Clinic, has gotten tons of local coverage over the years. One reason the program relies on zebrafish is that their genetic structure is similar to humans. 

In an email, Pierret said the experiments at Lincoln conformed to the rules of animal use as outlined by the "International Rules for Pre-College Science Research: Guidelines for Science and Engineering Fairs 2019-2020."

"The Lincoln students projects are reviewed based on these rules and each of the experiments absolutely remained within currently accepted proper use of animals in research," Pierret said in the email.

Those rules govern the use of vertebrate animals in pre-college student experiments (zebrafish are classified as vertebrates because they have a backbone).

The rules, for example, emphasize that non-animal research is preferred and encourages students to use alternatives to animal research wherever possible. But when the use of vertebrate animals becomes necessary, the tests must adhere to certain rules.

For example, experiments that result in the death of vertebrate animals are prohibited. Toxicity studies that cause pain, distress or death are also prohibited. 

The rules, however, make an exception for the use of zebrafish embryos within the first seven days of post-fertilization "because of their delayed cognitive neural development."

In other words, no brain, no pain.

Pierret said young zebrafish and zebrafish embryos used in the school experiments fell within that seven-day, post-fertilization window.

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