Do you have a passion for science and a desire to make a positive impact on your community? You might consider exploring the many types of toxicology careers. As a toxicologist, you might work with patients or law enforcement agencies, or you might influence public policy, the safety of workplaces or the health of the environment.
There are many possibilities for jobs in toxicology. The requirements for becoming a toxicologist often depend on the specific area of specialization you choose, so consider your choices carefully.
An Overview of Toxicology Careers
There are different types of toxicology studies, but they all involve the study of the effects of physical, chemical and biological substances on the environment, people and animals. By necessity, toxicology is a multidisciplinary field, combining elements of biology, chemistry, math and physics.
Because toxicology is such a broad, diverse field, it’s not uncommon for toxicologists to specialize in a particular area. For example, some toxicologists may be experts in environmental toxins. Others may devote their professional lives to the study of the effects of radiation poisoning on people. Still other toxicologists may specialize in a particular part or system of the body, such as reproductive toxicology.
Toxicologists play a vital role in public health and environmental health. New chemical compounds continue to be created, thanks to scientific and technological advances; toxicologists are the professionals responsible for exploring how these substances could inflict harm. They can also provide the scientific knowledge necessary to establish maximum safe exposure levels for various substances, which can lead to protective regulations and other public policies.
Types of Jobs in Toxicology
Are you passionate about science and thinking about pursuing toxicology careers? If so, one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is which subfield you’ll specialize in. There are a few different types of jobs in toxicology to consider. However, no matter which subfield you choose, you can rest assured that your job will play a vital role in safeguarding the public.
Forensic toxicology is among the best-known types of toxicology, thanks in no small part to crime-focused TV shows. A forensic toxicologist works at the intersection of criminal justice and science. There are four different specialty areas of forensic toxicology, as follows:
- Workplace drug testing – Employers may need to check whether employees or contractors have been using banned substances. This is especially important in occupations in which safety violations can cost lives, such as in the transportation industry.
- Doping control – Professional athletes ranging from Olympic gymnasts to Major League Baseball players are all subjected to drug tests on a routine basis. There is a lengthy list of substances that these individuals are banned from using, including both illegal and legal substances. Forensic toxicologists work in labs to test and interpret the results of samples from professional athletes.
- Human performance toxicology – A forensic toxicologist who specializes in human performance toxicology studies the effects of substances on human behavior. For example, these professionals can analyze the extent to which a driver was impaired by substances before causing a car crash or how exposure to substances might have influenced a violent criminal.
- Death investigation toxicology – Also known as postmortem toxicology, this specialization is largely dedicated to discovering the cause of death. Postmortem toxicologists test samples collected from deceased individuals who may be either the victims of crimes or the perpetrators. A postmortem toxicologist may also determine whether a deceased individual was truly the victim of a crime or if they died of natural causes.
Like other types of toxicologists, forensic toxicologists must know how to use complicated lab equipment to run their tests, and they must know how to interpret their findings accurately. However, forensic toxicologists are more likely to need stellar communication skills as well. They must often testify in court and communicate complex terminology to a lay audience of jurors. There is significant pressure to ensure the results and interpretations are accurate, as incorrect information can readily lead to a miscarriage of justice.
If your passion for science includes an interest in helping sick people get well again, you might consider exploring a career in medical toxicology. Medical toxicologists care for patients who have been exposed to toxic substances, both natural and manmade. A medical toxicologist is responsible for:
- Treating patients
- Preventing toxic exposure
Some medical toxicologists may develop knowledge of the health effects of certain agents, such as the following:
- Medications (intentional and unintentional overdoses)
- Drugs of abuse
- Marine toxins
- Snake and spider venom
- Toxic plants
Note that the pathway toward pursuing this particular job is different than that of most toxicology careers. Since these professionals diagnose and treat patients, they must go to medical school. Here’s a quick look at a career pathway for this profession:
- Earn a pre-med bachelor’s degree, ideally with a concentration in toxicology
- Graduate from medical school, complete residency training and become a licensed physician
- Complete a two-year fellowship in medical toxicology that has been approved by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education
- Pass the Medical Toxicology Board exam to become a board-certified medical toxicologist
The path toward becoming a medical toxicologist is a rigorous one. However, this career can be highly rewarding. Medical toxicologists make it their life’s work to save lives.
Industrial or Occupational Toxicology
It’s the job of industrial or occupational toxicologists to assess the risks of toxic exposure to workers; they then provide recommendations to minimize the risk and protect the workers. If a chemical exposure accident occurs, industrial toxicologists may be called upon to advise on environmental remediation strategies and treatment approaches for any exposed workers or bystanders.
It’s often thought that these kinds of toxicology careers are only necessary in manufacturing workplaces, such as the plant of a chemical manufacturer. Yet, all types of substances can pose risks to human health. Consider the following circumstances:
- Workers in a bakery may inhale a great deal of flour dust into their lungs
- Workers in an office building may be at risk from asbestos
- Hair stylists may breathe in toxic fumes from dyes and other chemical treatments
- Workers at a musical instrument factory may be exposed to toxic copper dust
- Workers at a gun range may suffer from lead poisoning
Cancers, debilitating lung diseases, neurological disabilities and infertility are all examples of adverse health outcomes that can result from toxic exposure in the workplace, particularly when that exposure occurs over a prolonged period. However, every worker deserves to be reasonably protected from harm. If you opt to pursue these types of jobs in toxicology, you could play an important role in protecting the health of others in your community.
As the job title implies, regulatory toxicology involves shaping public policy. Regulatory toxicologists are responsible for testing products and their toxic or potentially toxic ingredients to determine what risk they pose to human and environmental health.
Some substances are only a threat if they occur in high enough concentrations or if humans are exposed to them for a certain period or above a certain dosage. It’s the job of a regulatory toxicologist to determine the threshold between safe and unsafe exposure to these substances. Regulatory toxicologists may work with a wide range of substances, including:
- Food additives
- Industrial chemicals
The findings of regulatory toxicologists are passed along to agencies that shape public policy, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some examples of issues that a regulatory toxicologist may work on include the following:
- The risks of building homes on top of contaminated soil
- The potential for harm if a certain pesticide is present in drinking water
- Whether emissions from a landfill site will harm human health
- Whether a particular food additive may be harmful in high concentrations
Does air pollution influence the development of dementia? Are fish from a polluted river safe to consume? How do pesticides move through the food web? These are all examples of questions that an environmental toxicologist may work to answer.
These types of jobs in toxicology focus on how toxic substances move through and affect the environment. It’s often thought that environmental toxicologists only study the effects of toxic substances on plants, animals and ecosystems, like rivers or marshlands.
Yet, humans too are part of the natural world, and the health of the environment directly affects the health of humans. Environmental toxicologists can study how substances introduced to the environment by humans negatively affect the environment, as well as how those substances in turn affect humans. So, for example, humans cause air pollution, which harms both the overall environment as well as human health.
Earning an Undergraduate Forensic Science Degree
Of all the different toxicology careers, forensic toxicology tends to have comparatively fewer requirements. You can get started with just an undergraduate degree, although you’ll find that more doors will open to you if you also earn a master’s degree. If you already know that you want to become a forensic toxicologist, you should look for an accredited bachelor’s degree program that specializes in this subfield.
The specific curriculum will vary from one school to the next, but you can generally expect to study topics such as the following:
- Biology, chemistry, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology
- The processing of crime scenes and the analysis of physical evidence
- The use of lab instruments and application of substance analysis methodologies
- Different types of drugs and their effects on human health and behavior
- The identification, testing and analysis of DNA and body fluids
GCU offers several STEM degree options, including the Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science, which is ideally designed for aspiring forensic toxicologists. This degree is a multidisciplinary one, combining the latest advances in biology, chemistry and other life sciences with 21st century technological innovations.
Learn more about joining our Christian learning community by clicking on Request Info at the top of your screen.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.