What is Toxicology?
The Society of Toxicology defines toxicology as the study of the adverse effects of chemical, physical, or biological agents on people, animals, and the environment. Toxicologists are scientists trained to investigate, interpret, and communicate the nature of those effects. Most toxicologists focus on chemical agents, although some are experts about harmful effects of physical agents such as radiation. Toxicology is an interdisciplinary science, integrating information from biology and virtually all of its subspecialties (e.g., genetics, endocrinology and molecular biology) as well as math, physics and chemistry and its subspecialties (e.g. analytical, organic, and clinical chemistry).
Even the most experienced toxicologists will not be experts in all areas of toxicology. Areas of toxicology specialization can be categorized in various ways. One classification scheme often used relies on job setting or type of issue the toxicologist is likely to be working on. For example, toxicologists working in a clinical setting or a forensic laboratory determine what caused a toxic reaction in a person. Some may specialize, say, in venomous animals and poisonous plants. Professionals focusing on workplace exposure might call themselves occupational toxicologists. Determining how much of a drug or other chemical (e.g. a pesticide or cosmetic ingredient) should be considered safe as it is being developed by a company, and before used by consumers, is a challenge faced by industry toxicologists. Establishing safe levels after production and use of a chemical so that the public continues to be protected from harmful levels is one of the main roles filled by regulatory toxicologists and others working outside of a government setting on similar issues related to risk assessment. The study of harmful effects on plant and animal wildlife in our immediate environment and larger ecosystems is a subspecialty called ecotoxicology or environmental’ toxicology. Another way to categorize areas of toxicological specialization is analogous to medical specialties. Like physicians, toxicologists may focus on, say, reproduction and development, the lung, or the kidneys. Others focus more at the molecular level and may refer to themselves as mechanistic toxicologists.
Toxicology as a scientific discipline has a very interesting and long history. The word toxicology originates from the Greek language, where “toxicon” means “arrow poison”. Most toxicologists tend to prefer to use the word “toxic” instead of “poisonous.” And, in fact, many toxicologists will tell you that there is really no such thing as a “poison” or a “poisonous” chemical”! It is the dose, frequency and timing of exposure that make a chemical ‘toxic’. Thus, typically, toxicity takes place only when a potentially toxic chemical exceeding a certain amount reaches sensitive tissues such as the reproductive organs, for example. Furthermore, toxicologists working in the related specialty of health risk assessment make the significant distinction between a chemical hazard and a chemical risk. Not all hazards pose actual risks. A chemical may be harmful or beneficial depending on the dose present, what part of the body the chemical comes in contact with, what organism is being exposed, how often and for how long, and many other considerations. Despite these seeming complexities, toxicologists approach the study of harmful properties of chemicals using relatively straightforward principles and concepts.
If you are interested in learning more about what toxicology is and what toxicologists do, then you’ve come to the right place! Explore our Web site and the many resources we link to, designed to help you understand more about how to evaluate your own health risks when taking medications or when using pesticides, industrial-type solvents, cosmetics, household cleaning products and any other chemical in your environment. If you are uncertain about what constitutes a ‘chemical’ you might want to start with our topic titled “Everything is a Chemical!” The resources we highlight below were chosen specifically to illustrate what toxicology is and what toxicologists do:
“Is It Safe? Evaluating Chemical Risks”
Video by TEF in English, Spanish, and English with Japanese subtitles Currently at this link but that might change? https://toxedfoundation.org/video_pg.htm
An excellent introduction to the issues toxicologists deal with and also learn some basic principles, such as “RITE” — risk is dependent upon toxicity and exposure. The video covers several examples from everyday life, such as renovating old homes and removing old paints containing lead. The main principle of “the dose makes the poison” is illustrated by the interesting story of how warfarin, now a life-saving pharmaceutical that reduces cardiovascular risks associated with blood clots, was discovered and first used as a rat poison. (The year this was produced it won an Aurora Platinum Award for Best of Show in the instructional/educational/training program category.)
The English version of “Is It Safe?” also available as a two-part series on YouTube
Part 1 (8:30): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HyTIAtHaDY
Part 2 (7:28): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnmVFbexeEI
“Is It Safe? Evaluating Chemical Risks” Primer
A 23-page pamphlet that elaborates upon key concepts and principles introduced by the “Is It Safe?” video. Learn more.
ToxTutor and ToxLearn
Tutorials produced by the National Library of Medicine (NLM): http://sis.nlm.nih.gov/enviro/toxtutor.html
As the website explains, these tutorials were developed to provide users of NLM’s toxicology databases with a working knowledge of basic toxicology principles. Whether or not you use NLM’s toxicology databases, though, these tutorials can give you a better idea of some of the basic subject areas toxicologists deal with on a regular basis. Written at the introductory college student level, working through these tutorials provides a great foundation for understanding what toxicology is all about.
Society of Toxicology (SOT) Slide Set
The main topics covered are General Introduction to Toxicology, Toxicology as a Discipline, Toxicology Concepts, and Careers in Toxicology. Originally created for use in live presentations to a variety of audiences, the information on many of these slides helps to give interested viewers a better feeling for what toxicology is and what toxicologists do. Try starting with Toxicology as a Discipline and Careers in Toxicology.
These next two videos were produced by toxicology students challenged with addressing the question: Why would you want to become a toxicologist?
“These are the days of our lives…as Toxicologists”
2013 winner of the YouTox/Video submission for the 52nd annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) Meeting, YouTox Video Challenge. Produced by students in the Toxicology Training Program at the University of Rochester, Department of Environmental Medicine in the School of Medicine and Dentistry. (6:36).
“Toxicology Research at West Virginia University”
This 2014 first place winner of the SOT Video Challenge was produced by students conducting toxicology-related research at West Virginia University. In discussing specific research projects it also explains more generally what toxicologists do and types of problems they address. (3:20)
“All about toxicology”
Although not professionally produced, this video is another thoughtful and accurate depiction of the field of toxicology. (2:07)
These next two websites offer relevant information posted by toxicologists and are updated on a regular basis. TEF shares a common goal with these organizations in striving to promote public understanding of toxicology and make toxicology-related information freely accessible to the general public. Because TEF is unable to continually evaluate everything on websites that change on an ongoing basis, referral to these links should not be interpreted as TEF’s endorsement of all opinions and information appearing there.
Kids + Chemical Safety
Provides up-to-date health information on chemical hazards and safe use of chemicals around children.
This website is administered by Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), an independent, 501(c)(3), organization structured for scientific and educational purposes. TERA’s mission is to support the protection of public health by developing, reviewing and communicating risk assessment values and analyses; improving risk methods through research; and educating risk assessors, managers, and the public on risk assessment issues.
A toxicology encyclopedia offering articles and other resources addressing a variety of chemical toxicity issues that will further inform viewers of some of current issues toxicologists are addressing.
Toxipedia describes itself as a moderated wiki, offering a way for scientists, environmental health professionals, students, and concerned citizens to share their knowledge with the public for the benefit of the common good.
Related topics: Cosmetic Safety, Hazard vs. Risk, History of Toxicology, Occupational Safety and Health, Radiation, Venomous or Poisonous – Animals, Plants, Mushrooms and More, Reproductive and Developmental Toxicity Hazards,