What does a toxicologist do?

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What is a Toxicologist?

Toxicology is the scientific study of the effects of toxic chemicals, also known as poisons, in living organisms that come into contact with them.

Toxicologists are the scientists who specialize in identifying, controlling, and preventing adverse effects of chemicals on the health of humans, animals, and the environment. They conduct toxicology research to understand more about the detection, occurrence, and properties of poison, as well as how to treat poison exposure and improve poison regulation. Their work, which involves measuring and analyzing substances, particles, pollutants, and bacteria to identify the potential threats they pose, is critical in determining the materials, substances, and ingredients that can and cannot be used across a variety of sectors.

Clinical toxicologists, for example, apply chemical research as it directly relates to the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. Biomedical toxicologists test the components, safety, and efficacy of new medications before they are marketed on a large scale by a pharmaceutical company. Forensic toxicologists apply their knowledge and skills to assist in autopsies to determine the causes of death when poisoning or drug overdoses are suspected.

Which chemicals are really dangerous? How much does it take to cause harm? What are the effects of a particular chemical? Cancer? Nervous system damage? Birth defects? Toxicologists are the scientists who find scientifically sound answers to these and other important questions – by connecting knowledge from biology, chemistry, biochemistry, mathematics, physiology, pathology, immunology, genetics, medicine, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, public health, environmental science, and forensic science.

What does a Toxicologist do?

Toxicologists use analytical and scientific techniques to identify toxins such as chemicals, biological substances, and radiation, and to assess the potential risks and harmful effects posed by them. Their research and testing center on two main areas: the routes of exposure and the concentration of exposure (the dose).

Various test tubes of toxic substances portraying what a toxicologist will research and test.

The factors that affect chemical toxicity are:

  • Dosage: acute exposure (large single exposures) and chronic exposure (small and continuous exposures)
  • Route of exposure: ingestion, skin absorption, or inhalation
  • Species
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Health
  • Environment
  • Individual characteristics

While their specific responsibilities vary depending on their area of specialization, toxicologists typically carry out these tasks:

  • Design, plan, and undertake controlled experiments and trials
  • Devise and test hypotheses, using appropriate analytical techniques to identify and quantify toxins
  • Analyze and interpret data
  • Give evidence in court
  • Conduct field studies
  • Study relevant literature
  • Write reports, reviews, and papers
  • Perform risk assessments to determine the likelihood of harmful effects
  • Assist in establishing controls and regulations for various chemical and physical hazards to protect animals, humans, and the environment
  • Collaborate and share expertise and research findings with scientific and technical staff
  • Supervise and coordinate technologists, technicians, and trainees
  • Manage laboratories

Now, let’s take a look at some examples of the specialized work of toxicologists, based on their career focus:

Analytical toxicologists specialize in detecting natural products, including toxins, venoms or plant poisons, toxic environmental chemicals, toxic anthropogenic (human-made) chemicals, and their biotransformed metabolites (a substance made or used when the body breaks down food, drugs, or chemicals, or its own tissue)

Clinical / biomedical toxicologists work in medical environments or at pharmaceutical firms. They study the effects of drugs or other chemicals on the human body. They may be part of a medical team responding to emergencies, such as drug overdoses, or they may monitor drug therapies for patients with certain diseases, such as epilepsy or asthma.

Environmental toxicologists study the effects of chemical, physical, and biological agents on humans and other organisms which have been exposed to those agents through food, air, water, and the environment, including aquatic habitats, sediment, and soil. They determine naturally occurring levels of toxicants in the environment and then establish acceptable guidelines.

Forensic toxicologists examine post-mortem tissues for drugs and poisons. In general, they are called upon when deaths are suspicious, unexpected, or have no anatomical cause. Forensic toxicologists are concerned with the medical and legal aspects of impairment or deaths, which may relate to drugs, including alcohol. They often testify in court and may help train police to use breath-testing equipment.

Industrial toxicologists test new products such as pesticides and drugs to help manufacturers determine a product’s toxicity. This testing protects industrial workers during production and helps to identify safe uses for consumers and the public.

Nutritional toxicologists test food additives and new food products. They examine how additives interact with nutrients in foods to evaluate their safety for consumers.

Regulatory toxicologists develop controls for safe uses of new chemical products, including industrial and agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Risk assessment toxicologists study the potential results of exposure to toxic substances. They develop guidelines for safe exposure levels.

Veterinary toxicologists study the health problems or diseases of unknown cause in animals, and the potential of transference to humans.

Based on everything that toxicologists do, it is not surprising that toxicology has come to be known as the safety science.

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What is the workplace of a Toxicologist like?

The workplaces of toxicologists include offices, labs, industrial facilities, and outdoors. For example, clinical or medical toxicologists work in medical facilities; forensic toxicologists work in police stations, morgues, government agencies, and at crime scenes; environmental toxicologists work in laboratories and in the field. Toxicologists who pursue a career in research and teaching are employed by colleges and universities.

Toxicologists may work on their own or in teams and often must sit or stand for long periods of time. While they usually work regular hours, flexibility and/or overtime may be required when conducting experiments or to meet deadlines. The job may involve some travel, to collect field samples, testify at hearings or in court, respond to emergencies or crisis situations, or attend meetings or conferences.

Toxicologists often handle toxic materials and substances of unknown toxicity. Abiding by strict scientific and safety protocols is an integral part of their work. Depending on the specific task and hazard level, they may be required to wear personal protective equipment and/or work in an isolated room. Many of the tests they perform require very fine motor skills.

Self-employment, freelancing, and consultancy opportunities exist for toxicologists, especially those with substantial experience.