Toxicology is the scientific study of drugs, environmental contaminants and naturally occurring substances that are potentially harmful to plants, animals and humans. Toxicology research can help identify dangerous side effects of products such as medications and industrial, household or gardening chemicals. Research also allows toxicologists to determine how harmful chemicals can be counteracted in case of a spill, improper use or deliberate poisoning.
Research is at the heart of toxicology. Basic toxicological research examines molecular, biological and cellular processes that cause disease when humans are exposed to chemicals. Toxicological research may focus on ways to determine the potential harmful effects of chemicals and the amount of the chemical that is needed to cause harm. Other researchers may examine how humans can use specific chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides as safely as possible. Researchers may specialize in chemicals that might cause cancer, birth defects, nerve damage or weakened immune systems or try to develop antidotes to chemical poisoning.
Education and Work Settings
Toxicologists generally have doctoral degrees, but at a minimum, a toxicologist will need two years of specialized study in addition to a baccalaureate, medical degree or veterinary medical degree. The basic educational preparation for toxicology may be in fields such as biology, chemistry, environmental science, veterinary medicine, human medicine or pharmacy. A qualified toxicologist may teach, work in basic research, work in applied research -- studies that are expected to produce direct social or commercial benefits -- or work in government to help design regulations for the use of potentially toxic substances.
Among the questions a toxicologist must answer when examining a chemical are whether the substance is likely to be harmful, what amount is harmful and what effects does a particular chemical have. These highly educated scientists use various technologies in their work, including molecular, genetic and analytic techniques. Once the toxicologist has determined that there is a risk, she can also make recommendations for managing the risk to ensure that financial resources are spent in managing the most-dangerous situations.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that medical scientists, including toxicologists, earned an average annual salary of $87,640 in 2011. However, the Society of Toxicology reports that salaries for toxicologists vary according to education and experience. The society notes that entry-level salaries for those with doctoral degrees range from $35,000 to $60,000, while a toxicologist with a Ph.D. and 10 years of experience could expect to earn $70,000 to $100,000 annually. Executive toxicologists tend to have the highest wages at $100,000 to $200,000 annually.