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What They Do

Insider Info

Toxicology is essentially the study of the effects of chemical substances. Chemicals may affect the environment, humans or animals. Usually, toxicologists focus on the negative effects.

Scientists who study toxicology outside of medicine are called non-clinical toxicologists.

"People who work in industry tend to be more applied as opposed to people in academia, where they tend to be much more basic or theoretical sometimes," says toxicologist Gordon Krip.

Toxicologists may work as researchers, medical doctors or regulators. Universities, medical centers or governmental agencies may employ toxicologists. There are many different fields of specialization.

Forensic toxicology is one area of specialization. It is the art of chemical analysis as it applies to criminal or post-mortem investigations. Forensic toxicologists examine a corpse to determine the nature of the substances that caused the death. Various factors such as time of death, source of the poison and how it was administered can be determined.

Forensic toxicology plays an important part in the war on drugs, by giving us more information on how drugs like heroin affect people.

Veterinary toxicologists specialize in toxicology as it relates to the health of animals. It includes everything from biotoxins (natural chemicals produced by plants, animals, bacteria, fungi and phytoplankton) to the toxic effects of pharmaceuticals, feed additives, radiation and environmental agents on animals and humans.

Environmental toxicology studies how chemical substances affect the environment and how those effects, in turn, affect humans. They may collect information about pollutants from lakes and streams, work with factories to assess environmental damage or help in preventing environmental damage. Environmental toxicologists may also work in a medical setting to examine how environmental damage affects people. When there is a chemical spill, an environmental toxicologist may be called in.

A toxicological pathologist studies how chemicals affect humans. They may work as regulators, determining what substances are safe for use by humans. They may also work in the medical profession, interacting directly with patients or conducting research. One example of this is a person who works in a blood lab, analyzing levels of medication or other substances.

Don't expect a standard 40-hour week. Most toxicologists put in 50 to 60 hours a week. University professor Donn Kushner says a full-time academic researcher must put in at least 50 to 60 hours a week to stay competitive.

Toxicologists working in the medical profession usually are not exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination. Medical scientists also spend time working in clinics and hospitals administering drugs and treatments to patients in clinical trials.

Those involved in environmental or ecological science may take field trips that involve strenuous physical activity and primitive living conditions. They may have to travel extensively to isolated areas.

At a Glance

Study the effects of chemicals on organisms

  • Toxicologists may specialize in several different areas
  • A graduate degree is usually required
  • Long hours may be necessary


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