Toxicologist

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Toxicologists study the harmful effects of chemical, physical and biological agents on living organisms by detecting and examining the symptoms, mechanisms and treatments of poisoning (especially the poisoning of people).

They also determine safe or acceptable levels of exposure to particular agents.  FutureGrowthModerate


Specialisations

Analytical Toxicologist - identifies and measures toxic agents in biological and environmental samples to determine the extent of exposure (after poisoning or a chemical spill, or during long-term environmental contamination, for example) and to monitor the remediation of chemical spills.

Clinical Toxicologist - has medical qualifications to study the harmful effects of chemicals, drugs, pesticides and other substances on humans through the clinical diagnosis of symptoms and biological poisoning. Clinical toxicologists also treat and manage intoxicated patients.

Environmental Toxicologist/Ecotoxicologist - studies the harmful effects of environmental exposure to chemical, physical and biological agents on living organisms (including their effects on humans, fish, other animals and plants), as well as their effects on ecosystems.

Forensic Toxicologist - specialises in the study of alcohol, legal and illicit drugs, and poisons, including their chemical composition, preparation and identification. Forensic toxicologists also study the absorption, distribution and elimination characteristics of chemicals and substances in the body, as well as the way in which the body responds to them and the factors that determine drug safety and effectiveness.

Occupational Toxicologist - studies the harmful effects of substances used in the workplace to determine a safe or acceptable level of exposure to workers, as well as appropriate control measures to reduce or eliminate worker exposure.

Regulatory Toxicologist - has the primary role of ensuring public health and safety from the use of chemicals, drugs and pesticides by identifying potential health risks posed by exposure to such substances. Regulatory toxicologists provide advice to governments, health professionals, politicians and the public on potential risks associated with chemical exposure so that appropriate risk management strategies may be implemented to protect the health of workers and the public. 

Knowledge, skills and attributes

  • enjoy and have an aptitude for science and research

  • able to think logically and analytically

  • able to carry out detailed and accurate work

  • good communication skills

  • able to think creatively and solve problems

  • able to work as part of a team 

 

Students studying Toxicology
Students studying Toxicology at UWA

 

Duties and Tasks

Toxicologists may perform the following tasks:

  • study the amount of exposure to a substance (from pollution caused by environmental contaminants such as industrial waste products or emergency events such as a gas leak, for example) and the potential effect it may have on public health, plants, animals and the ecosystem

  • study how exposure to foreign chemicals affects the genetic, chemical, physical and structural composition of cells, tissues, organ systems and whole organisms

  • devise and carry out experiments to determine how chemical or drug concentrations in the body change over time

  • test newly discovered or manufactured substances for their safety, effects and possible use as drugs

  • analyse blood, urine and other biological and environmental samples to identify the chemical composition and concentration of drugs, contaminants and other substances

  • evaluate evidence from cases where tampering and contamination has occurred

  • write scientific reports on research and investigations, as well as more general information for scientific, managerial, political and general audiences

  • document results, preserve evidence and maintain chain of custody (the document or paper trail showing the process from evidence seizure through to the presentation of the evidence in court) in criminal investigations

  • provide advice to managers, politicians, primary producers, healthcare workers, the general public and community groups 

 

Education and training/entrance requirements

To become a toxicologist you usually have to complete a relevant science or forensics degree at university with a major in toxicology.

Toxicologists are employed across several industries, including pharmaceutical, food and chemical industries, environmental management, scientific research, government regulatory agencies, and other research organisations and health services. They are also employed in hospitals and educational institutions.

  • Did You Know?

    If something is a toxin, you can call it toxic. But, of course, this is where things get a bit tricky: while the word toxin only refers to substances that are toxic in low doses, the adjective toxic can be used whenever something causes disease. You can have toxic amounts of water, but water is never considered a toxin. Hence the term toxinology as opposed to toxicology: the latter is the study of adverse effects that occur in living organisms due to chemicals, period. Any chemical in that causes harm no matter how large or repeated a dose required might be examined by toxicologists, while toxinolgists specialize on biologically-produced substances (“biotoxins”) that wreak havoc in small amounts and the biology and ecology of the organisms that wield them.

    Toxins can be further categorized by where they come from . Usually, toxins that are made synthetically are called toxicants, as opposed to the general term toxins, which occur in nature.

    Biological toxins are produced by living creatures, while environmental toxins are not (things like lead and arsenic, for example). Toxins also get classified by what they do, especially to us; hemotoxins are toxins that act on the blood, while neurotoxins attack nerves. And then there are subcategories of toxins based on how they enter the body. Oral toxins, for example, are toxins that cause harm when ingested, while topical toxins or are those that are harmful if applied to the skin. Some toxins are harmless if swallowed, but lethal if injected, so the route of entry can matter greatly. In fact, route of entry is so important that toxinologists use entirely separate words to refer to toxins based on delivery: venoms and poisons.


    Some toxins act when ingested, absorbed through the skin, or inhaled; such toxins are referred to as poisons. Others enter our bodies through wounds deliberately inflicted by the toxic species—those are venoms.

    Essentially boils down to who the aggressor is: the toxic species (venoms) or the one who suffers the effects of the toxins (poisons).

    The difference between poison and venom is why toxinologists cringe every time they see someone referring to a “poisonous snake.”

    Toxins are substances that cause harm in small amounts. There are three main types of toxins:
    * venoms,
    *poisons and
    *toxungens,
    which differ based on route of delivery

    Toxungens are poisons that are aggressively wielded, like the squirting of poison by cane toads or spitting of venom by certain cobra species. Since no wound is inflicted when the toxins are sprayed, they aren’t considered “venoms” in context, but the animals aren’t exactly waiting to be harassed, either. Because the toxic species is actively involved in the delivery of its noxious chemicals, but they aren’t making wounds, we give them a special category all to themselves.

    Toxic

    (Source: Discover)

Toxicologist

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