In fundamental research, toxicologists investigate how chemicals, drugs, and other substances affect our biological systems. Toxicologists can use a wide variety of technologies and procedures, including cell culture systems, microscopic techniques, mathematical models, and work with animals. They use their findings to guide those, for example, involved in the development of drugs or food additives.
Industrial toxicologists play a very important role in the development of safe and effective products, including food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, cosmetics, and household products.
They test products during and after manufacture, verifying that they can perform well at levels that do not cause harm and that they have not been contaminated by toxic materials. In the food industry, for example, toxicologists can test a chemical additive to make sure it is safe.
Industrial toxicologists also work with regulatory authorities to ensure that their company’s products meet national and international safety standards.
Pharmaceutical toxicologists ensure the safety of drugs and medications. They demonstrate the safety of a drug by first testing its effects on cells in laboratory experiments (“in vitro” test) and then in animals and human volunteers (“in vivo”). If the toxicologist is already aware of the toxicity of similar drugs, that can reduce the number of tests needed.
Clinical toxicologists have a deep understanding of the effects of drugs and other chemicals on humans, and of how to treat those who have been poisoned by these chemicals.
They generally work in hospitals, treating people who have been poisoned by a drug (both accidentally and on purpose). They establish the type and amount of drug taken, and advise medical personnel on the best way to treat the patient.
Occupational toxicologists ensure safe conditions for those who produce or handle chemicals on a daily basis. They advise on the safe handling, storage and disposal of chemicals.
Occupational toxicologists also advise on how to treat a person who has been exposed to a chemical at too high a level, and what to do if a chemical has been accidentally released into the environment. They analyze existing toxicological data to help the government enact regulations for the use of a new chemical.
Forensic toxicologists intervene in court cases, investigate and explain the circumstances in which drugs have intervened. They are involved in a wide variety of cases, from driving under the influence of alcohol to fatal accidents, suicides and investigations of deaths suspected of being by deliberate or accidental poisoning.
They appear in court to identify a drug, explain how much has been taken, and weigh in on whether it was a therapeutic dose, or an accidental or deliberate overdose.
Ecotoxicologists protect the environment from harmful chemicals, studying their impact on populations and ecosystems.
They trace the movement of pollutants through food chains, identify how wildlife responds to chemicals (for example, the development of pesticide resistance in insects), and undertake detailed studies of wildlife in contaminated areas.
Regulatory toxicologists help governments establish and enforce safety standards for the use of chemicals. They also answer questions from politicians and citizens.
Other specialized fields
Apart from these main types of toxicology, there are also many other specialties, including neurotoxicology (which studies the effects of chemicals on the nervous system) and immunotoxicology (effects on the immune system).
There are also toxicologists who teach and research at universities and research centers.