Exploring this Job

Join a science club in addition to taking biology and chemistry courses to further develop laboratory skills. Ask a career counselor to arrange a discussion with a toxicologist to explore career options. Part-time jobs in research laboratories or hospitals are an excellent way to explore science firsthand, although opportunities may be limited and require higher levels of education and experience. Spend time on the Web sites of professional associations for toxicologists, such as the Society of Toxicology, to learn more about the profession and networking opportunities.

The Job

As scientists, toxicologists are concerned with the detection and effects of toxins, as well as developing methods to treat intoxication (poisonings). A primary objective of a toxicologist is to protect consumers by reducing the risks of accidental exposure to poisons. Toxicologists investigate the many areas in which our society uses potential toxins and documents their impact. For example, a toxicologist may chemically analyze a fish in a local lake to read for mercury, a harmful toxin to humans if consumed in high enough levels. This reading is reported to government or industry officials, who, in turn, write up a legal policy setting the maximum level of mercury that manufacturing companies can release without contaminating nearby fish and endangering consumers.

Most recently, toxicologists are contributing their knowledge to medical professionals and the public during the coronavirus pandemic. Toxicologists are helping to monitor, prevent, and manage toxicities that have arisen during the pandemic, whether from medically recommended therapies or from home creations such as drinking bleach (sodium hypochlorite).

On many projects, a toxicologist may be part of a research team, such as at a poison control center or a research laboratory. Clinical toxicologists may work to help save emergency drug overdose victims. Industrial toxicologists and academic toxicologists work on solving long-term issues, such as studying the toxic effects of cigarettes. They may focus on research and development, working to improve and speed up testing methods without sacrificing safety. Toxicologists use the most modern equipment, such as electron microscopes, atomic absorption spectrometers, and mass spectrometers, and they study new research instrumentation that may help with sophisticated research.

Industrial toxicologists work for private companies, testing new products for potential poisons. For example, before a new cosmetic good can be sold, it must be tested according to strict guidelines. Toxicologists oversee this testing, which is often done on laboratory animals. These toxicologists may apply the test article ingredients topically, orally, or by injection. They test the results through observation, blood analysis, and dissection and detailed pathologic examination. Research results are used for labeling and packaging instructions to ensure that customers use the product safely. Although animal experimentation has created a great deal of controversy with animal-rights supporters, humane procedures are stressed throughout toxicology studies.

Toxicologists carefully document their research procedures so that they can be used in later reports on their findings. They often interact with lawyers and legislators on writing legislation. They may also appear at official hearings designed to discuss and implement new policy decisions. Toxicologists must pay careful attention to safety procedures because toxic materials are often handled during research and experimentation.