Wearing a lab coat to do work that saves lives, improves society and protects the planet attracts science-lovers to the field of toxicology. Toxicologists have expertise in the dangers posed by natural poisons, chemicals and other man-made substances. They know what levels of exposure can be safe or deadly and recommended treatments for exposure. According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, toxicologists begin their careers after earning a Ph.D. in toxicology or becoming physicians or veterinarians. With concentrations in one of the field's sub-specialties, they can blend their interest with a rewarding career.
You can break up your lab time with field research as an environmental toxicologist who studies food, air, soil and water contamination from chemicals and biohazards. They identify sources of pollution, detect the presence of toxins in the environment and determine ways to eliminate them. Environmental toxicologists also research the relationship between exposure to chemicals and the onset of birth defects and cancer. The National Registry of Environmental Professionals offers certification for those with at least a bachelor's degree and three years of working experience.
Industrial or Occupational Toxicologist
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 350,000 work-related sickness cases arise every year from chemical exposure. As an industrial or occupational toxicologist, you can promote worker protection and safety. Your research can identify hazardous chemicals and toxic substances and set minimal risk levels, or MRLs, for workers' daily exposure to them. Industrial toxicologists also advise government agencies on public health issues related to bioterrorism.
Safe exposure levels also occupy a regulatory toxicologist's time. Regulatory toxicologists test products for toxic ingredients or components and then determine how long a person or animal can be safely exposed to them. Their findings help agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to set rules that manufacturers and suppliers must follow. Another aspect of this branch of toxicology relates to product development for drugs, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and food additives, according to the ATSDR.
Forensic toxicologists serve the criminal justice system. They test tissue samples and body fluids to determine the presence and quantity of poison, gas, metal, alcohol or drugs. Armed with in-depth knowledge about how toxic substances affect performance and various systems of the human body, forensic toxicologists can help to exonerate or convict criminal suspects and pinpoint the cause of death. Employers and sports governing bodies such as the International Olympic Committee, rely on forensic toxicology tests to determine whether employees and athletes have used banned substances.
If your interest leans toward patient care, becoming a medical toxicologist gives you the opportunity to research, diagnose, manage and treat poisonings. Poison control centers, drug-detoxification clinics and hospital emergency rooms employ these toxicology experts, also known as clinical toxicologists. Medical toxicologists who treat patients are physicians with certification from the American Board of Emergency Medicine, American Board of Pediatrics or American Board of Preventive Medicine.
- Office of Personnel Management: General Schedule Qualification Standards; Toxicology Series 0415
- University of Richmond - Environmental Studies: Career in Environmental Toxicology
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: CHEMM; Industrial Hygienists and Toxicologists
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: Module 1 Introduction to Toxicology
- Explore Health Careers: Forensic Toxicologist
- American Board of Forensic Toxicology: What Is Forensic Toxicology?
- Drexel University College of Medicine: Careers in Medical Toxicology
- American College of Medical Toxicology: Interested in Becoming a Medical Toxicologist?
- Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images