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Toxicology is the science of poisons and toxic chemicals and their harmful effects on living organisms. Toxicologists investigate the possible detrimental effects of physical agents and chemicals on living things. They assess the probability of hazards causing adverse effects, estimate the long-term results of these effects on animal and human populations, and consider the cause, circumstances, effects and limits of safety of unintended harmful effects of food, food additives, drugs, household and industrial products or wastes. A few examples of toxic substances are asbestos, radium, formaldehyde and mustard gas.

Toxicologists often specialize in specific area, such as environmental toxicology, forensic toxicology, industrial toxicology, nutritional toxicology or veterinary toxicology. Using sophisticated equipment such as atomic absorption spectrometers, electron microscopes, flow cytometers and chromatography systems, toxicologists perform a number of experiments to help further their research.

Environmental toxicologists study the environmental effects of toxic chemical substances, which in turn harm humans and animals. They may study the effects of acid rain by collecting samples from lakes and streams. They also assess the effects of environmental pollutants on the health of individuals who have been exposed to hazards. Forensic toxicologists work with police and detectives to help solve criminal investigations. They perform autopsies to determine the nature of the toxic substance that caused the death. They detail various factors such as time of death and the source of poison. They also provide us with new information on the harmful effects of drugs.

Veterinary toxicologists specialize in how toxins affect animals. This includes everything from the food they eat to other environmental agents. Pathologists study how chemicals affect humans. They may work for the government setting regulations and policies on safe and toxic substances. They could also work in a laboratory analyzing toxicity levels in blood. Some toxicologists work for the military examining the effects that biological warfare has on combatants and civilians.

A toxicologist's goal is to improve industrial safety, and public and environmental protection through a better understanding of the hazards to which living species are exposed. Therefore, they must continually keep up-to-date on new changes and technological advances in this field.
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  Interests and Skills  
What skills are required of a toxicologist? Since they are dealing with potentially harmful and lethal issues, they must have a great deal of patience and an strong eye for detail. They are organized and methodical in their work, and have the ability to work well alone or as part of a team. Toxicologists must maintain the perseverance and intellectual ability required to think critically and answer complex questions. They are dedicated and committed to helping solve some of our poison and toxicity problems.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Conduct laboratory studies on substances, such as drugs and food additives, or on energy sources, like radiation to determine their effects on laboratory animals, plants and human tissue
  • Conduct research to develop new tests for use in toxicological studies
  • Evaluate potential risks based on levels and periods of exposure
  • Analyze and evaluate data gathered from studies and reliable scientific publications to determine appropriate controls for various chemical and physical hazards
  • Develop standards or guidelines for safe levels of chemical and physical agents in workplaces, air, food and water
  • Provide advice and scientific information to policy and program developers concerning the health and legal aspects of chemical use
  • Supervise and coordinate the activities of technologists and technicians
  • Toxicologists work in offices, laboratories, industrial facilities and outdoors. They may also spend a considerable amount of time doing research in libraries. Most toxicologists put in about 50 to 60 hours per week, with longer hours when deadlines are nearing. Travel may be required to collect field samples, testify at hearings or in court, respond to emergencies or crisis situations or attend scientific meetings.
  • Toxicologists who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination. This could range from rubber gloves to a full body suit in an isolated room. Testing new products often involves conducting experiments on animals or studies on in vitro preparations.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Toxicologists are employed by pharmaceutical and food manufacturers, biotechnology companies, governments, universities, hospitals, research centers and consulting firms. A few work in the chemical and petrochemical industries. Contract work is becoming more common in this occupation, focusing on individual research projects.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Growing research and advisory responsibilities are the most tangible forms of advancement in this occupation. There are relatively few administrative and supervisory positions. Therefore, advancement will also be in the form of taking on bigger research projects and having a bigger team of assistants and technicians to help.

  Educational Paths  
At a minimum, toxicologists have a bachelor's degree in a biology related field. Most toxicologists have advanced master's or PhD degrees in toxicology. As with most science careers, a PhD is usually required to direct and administer research programs, or to teach at the college or university level. Different specializations require different academic backgrounds. For example, veterinary toxicologists must become veterinarians first, then take an advanced degree in toxicology.

Toxicology is an interdisciplinary science that draws from diverse fields, including biology, chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, mathematics, physiology, pathology, immunology and genetics. Therefore, it is suggested that students take a diverse array of math and science classes in high school and university.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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