A country scientistYou’d never know Gil Veith was an internationally influential scientist who was followed by the KGB and spent years commuting between Two Harbors and Paris. Run into him on the street and he seems like a down-to-earth, regular North Shore guy.
By: Sonja Peterson, Lake County News Chronicle
You’d never know Gil Veith was an internationally influential scientist who was followed by the KGB and spent years commuting between Two Harbors and Paris. Run into him on the street and he seems like a down-to-earth, regular North Shore guy. And while he’s eager to talk about his work, he tends to understate what he’s accomplished.
It took about an hour and a half of conversation before he mentioned that he’d received a prestigious award this year. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s Henry Heimlich Award is a big deal. But Veith’s motivation isn’t being flown to Hollywood to receive an award at a gala attended by celebrities — though that was a perk. His real motivation is seeing his work help making the world safer for people and animals.
“Doing science in a rural area, you are trained by the people you live with to look for practicality,” Veith said. The ideas at the heart of his work are simple. He wants to make sure harmful chemicals don’t get into our streams, water and environment and cause humans and animals to get sick. To do this, he designs more efficient methods of testing chemicals for safety so that more chemicals can be tested without using animals or other expensive and elaborate testing.
Veith, 67, works from his rural Two Harbors home with scientists around the globe developing alternatives to testing chemicals on animals. He was the lab director at the Environmental Protection Agency in Duluth for 11 years. After that, he worked with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris and started the International QSAR Foundation, based out of Duluth.
His foundation had created the QSAR toolbox, a database which he describes as “a Facebook for chemicals.” It’s used by thousands of scientists and government agencies around the world to identify potentially harmful effects of chemicals without having to do costly and controversial animal testing.
“Sixty to 90 million dollars worth of tests can go into one chemical,” Veith said. A single chemical product, such as dish detergent or hand cream, could require millions of dollars or hundreds of animals for testing. The QSAR toolbox can drastically reduce costs and save animals.
The QSAR Foundation also tries to create a “middle ground” between industry, government and animal rights groups. They arrange for experts and representatives from countries like Denmark, Italy, and Bulgaria to meet.
Though in the past they’ve held large conferences in Duluth’s Canal Park, Veith says future, smaller retreats might take place along the North Shore. He envisions a small group, maybe just three to four experts, gathering for focused discussion at a resort along Lake Superior. “You just need to get people away from distractions so they can sit and talk for a few days.”
Veith’s work took him all over the world. “I had my gold card, my frequent flyer card, from Northwest before I retired, and then after I retired I went up to a platinum card. And that’s when I knew I was going in the wrong direction,” Veith said with a laugh. “I retired to get away from travel.”
Along with plenty of domestic travel, he’s spent several months in Japan and made numerous visits to Europe. “Nowhere, unfortunately, south of the equator,” he said.
He spent time in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and early 1980s through a scientific exchange program. “We were watched by the KGB,” he said.
“When we went to do studies on Lake Baikal, I brought with me a fridge magnet in the shape of Lake Superior. I was going to give it to the captain of the ship we were on. I didn’t have a translator with me or anything. He was the classic Russian sailor, there with his pipe. As soon as he saw the magnet he said ‘Lake Superior. Duluth.’ Just from the shape of the lake.” Veith felt lucky to find a connection to home halfway around the world.
He married his wife, Kaye Jacobs, in 1982 and in 1986 bought the land he still lives on in Clover Valley. “It’s a great neighborhood,” he said.
Veith hasn’t slowed down his work much, though he still finds time to relax. On a summer afternoon, you might find him and his wife at the Knife River Marina preparing their sailboat for a trip to Canada they have planned.
He continues his work with QSAR Foundation because he sees chemical safety as “a solvable problem.”
He would like to be comfortable that his work has had an impact. “We hope to finish this up before we really retire,” he said.
From Gil Veith’s QSAR web site at www.qsari.org
The International QSAR Foundation is the only nonprofit research organization devoted solely to creating alternative methods for identifying chemical hazards without further laboratory testing.
We develop, implement and support new QSAR technologies for use in regulation, research and education or wherever testing animals with chemicals is now required. QSAR models predict chemical behavior directly from chemical structure. QSAR is used to predict chemical properties directly from chemical structure.
When combined with other alternative test methods, QSAR can minimize the the need for animal tests while making the use of chemicals safer.
The computerized video games on the market today would have been considered impossible by inventors several decades ago because simulating realistic human activities was far more complex than computers could handle back then.
For some years now, realistic flying experience for pilots is gained by flying "virtual" airplane simulators where the science of flight is captured well enough to mimic actual flying under many conditions. Similarly, QSAR consists of computer simulations for animal tests which capture the science of toxicology enough to mimic the results of reference animal tests without using animal exposures. Many QSAR methods have already been used by the U.S. EPA for more than a decade.
The best hope to reduce animal testing in the future is to support the Foundation's effort to accelerate the development of computer simulators of animal tests.