Toxicologists design and conduct studies to determine the potential toxicity of substances to humans, plants, and animals. They provide information on the hazards of these substances to the federal government, private businesses, and the public. Toxicologists may suggest alternatives to using products that contain dangerous amounts of toxins, often by testifying at official hearings. There are an estimated 9,000 toxicologists currently employed in the United States.
History of Toxicologist Career
The study of the effects of poisons (toxins) began in the 1500s, when doctors documented changes in body tissues of people who died after a long illness. Although research was hampered by the lack of sophisticated research equipment, physicians and scientists continued to collect information on the causes and effects of various diseases over the next 300 years.
As microscopes and other forms of scientific equipment improved, scientists were able to study in greater detail the impacts of chemicals on the human body and the causes of disease. In the mid-1800s, Rudolf Virchow, a German scientist considered to be the founder of pathology (the study of diseased body tissue), began to unlock the mystery of many diseases by studying tissues at the cellular level. His research of diseased cells helped pathologists pinpoint the paths diseases take in the body.
With society’s increasing dependence on chemicals (for example, in agriculture, industry, and medicine) and growing use of prescribed (and illegal) drugs, the study of the impact of these potential toxins on public health and environmental quality has become more important. The toxicologist’s role in determining the extent of a problem, as well as suggesting possible alternatives or antidotes, plays an important role in society. Toxicologists act as consultants on developing long-term solutions to problems such as air and water pollution, the dumping of toxic waste into landfills, and the recognition of an unusual reaction to a pharmaceutical drug.
The Job of Toxicologists
As scientists, toxicologists are concerned with the detection and effects of toxins, as well as developing methods to treat intoxication (poisonings). A primary objective of a toxicologist is to protect consumers by reducing the risks of accidental exposure to poisons. Toxicologists investigate the many areas in which our society uses potential toxins and documents their impact. For example, a toxicologist may chemically analyze a fish in a local lake to read for mercury, a harmful toxin to humans if consumed in high enough levels. This reading is reported to government or industry officials, who, in turn, write up a legal policy setting the maximum level of mercury that manufacturing companies can release without contaminating nearby fish and endangering consumers.
On many projects, a toxicologist may be part of a research team, such as at a poison control center or a research laboratory. Clinical toxicologists may work to help save emergency drug overdose victims. Industrial toxicologists and academic toxicologists work on solving long-term issues, such as studying the toxic effects of cigarettes. They may focus on research and development, working to improve and speed up testing methods without sacrificing safety. Toxicologists use the most modern equipment, such as electron microscopes, atomic absorption spectrometers, and mass spectrometers, and they study new research instrumentation that may help with sophisticated research.
Industrial toxicologists work for private companies, testing new products for potential poisons. For example, before a new cosmetic good can be sold, it must be tested according to strict guidelines. Toxicologists oversee this testing, which is often done on laboratory animals. These toxicologists may apply the test article ingredients topically, orally, or by injection. They test the results through observation, blood analysis, and dissection and detailed pathologic examination. Research results are used for labeling and packaging instructions to ensure that customers use the product safely. Although animal experimentation has created a great deal of controversy with animal-rights supporters, humane procedures are stressed throughout toxicology studies.
Toxicologists carefully document their research procedures so that they can be used in later reports on their findings. They often interact with lawyers and legislators on writing legislation. They may also appear at official hearings designed to discuss and implement new policy decisions.
Because toxic materials are often handled during research and experimentation, a toxicologist must pay careful attention to safety procedures.
Toxicologist Career Requirements
While in high school, you can best prepare for a career as a toxicologist by taking courses in both the physical and biological sciences (chemistry and biology, for example), algebra and geometry, and physics. English and other courses that improve written and verbal communication skills will also be useful, since toxicologists must write and report on complicated study results.
Most toxicologists obtain their undergraduate degrees in a scientific field, such as pharmacology or chemistry. Course work should include mathematics (including mathematical modeling), biology, chemistry, statistics, biochemistry, pathology, anatomy, and research methods.
Career opportunities for graduates with bachelor’s degrees are limited; the majority of toxicologists go on to obtain master’s or doctorate degrees. Graduate programs vary depending on field of study, but they may include courses such as pathology, environmental toxicology, and molecular biology. Doctorate programs generally last four to five years.
Certification or Licensing
Certification reflects an individual’s competence and expertise in toxicology and can enhance career opportunities. The American Board of Toxicology certifies toxicologists after they pass a comprehensive two-day examination and complete the necessary educational requirements. To be eligible, applicants with a bachelor’s degree in an appropriate field must first have 10 years of work experience; with a master’s degree, seven years; and with a doctorate degree, three years.
Toxicologists must be hard workers and be dedicated to their field of study. To succeed in their work, they must be careful observers and have an eye for detail. Patience is also necessary, since many research projects can last months to years and show little results. The ability to work both alone and as part of a team is also needed for research.
Because of the nature of their work, toxicologists must also realize the potential dangers of working with hazardous materials. They must also be comfortable working with laboratory animals and be able to dissect them to examine organs and tissues. Though efforts have been made to limit and control live animal experimentation, research still requires their use to identify toxins and, in turn, protect the consumer public.
Exploring Toxicologist Career
If you are interested in pursuing a career as a toxicologist, consider joining a science club in addition to taking biology and chemistry courses to further develop your laboratory skills. Your career counselor might be able to help you arrange a discussion with a practicing toxicologist to explore career options. Part-time jobs in research laboratories or hospitals are an excellent way to explore science firsthand, although opportunities may be limited and require higher levels of education and experience.
According to the Society of Toxicology, approximately 9,000 toxicologists are employed in the United States. A recent job market survey of those with Ph.D.’s shows that 47 percent work for chemical and pharmaceutical companies, 21 percent are employed by large universities or medical schools, and 14 percent work in government. An increasing number (12 percent) work for consulting firms, providing professional recommendations to agencies, industries, and attorneys about issues involving toxic chemicals. Nonprofit research foundations employ only 4 percent of all toxicologists.
Those with the necessary education and experience should contact the appropriate research departments in hospitals, colleges and universities, government agencies, or private businesses. Often, school professors and career placement advisors provide job leads and recommendations.
Networking with professionals is another useful way to enter the field. Past work with a team of toxicologists during graduate study may open doors to future research opportunities. Membership in a professional society can also offer more networking contacts. In addition, the Society of Toxicology and the American College of Medical Toxicology both offer job placement assistance to members.
Skilled toxicologists will find many advancement opportunities, although specific promotions depend on the size and type of organization where the toxicologist is employed. Those working for private companies may become heads of research departments. Because of their involvement in developing important company policy, highly skilled and respected toxicologists may become vice presidents or presidents of companies. Obviously, this type of promotion would entail a change in job responsibilities, involving more administrative tasks than research activities.
Toxicologists working for educational institutions may become professors, heads of a department, or deans. Toxicologists who want to continue to research and teach can advance to positions with higher pay and increased job responsibilities. Toxicologists working at universities usually write grant proposals, teach courses, and train graduate students. University positions often do not pay as well as industrial positions, but they offer more independence in pursuing research interests.
As trained professionals, toxicologists have good earning potential. Wages vary depending on level of experience, education, and employer. According to the Society of Toxicology, entry-level toxicologists with a Ph.D. earn $35,000 to $60,000. With a Ph.D. and 10 years of experience, toxicologists can earn between $70,000 and $100,000 a year. Toxicologists in executive positions earn more than $100,000, and in the corporate arena they can earn more than $200,000. Those in private industry earn slightly more than those in government or academic positions.
Salaries for toxicologists are, in general, on the rise, but the survey reports that the biggest factor determining earning potential is not location but type of employer. Certification also plays a large role in salary level; toxicologists who are certified earn higher salaries than those who have not earned certification. Comparing gender differences, the salary survey found that women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts.
Toxicologists usually work in well-equipped laboratories or offices, either as part of a team or alone. Research in libraries or in the field is a major part of the job. Some toxicologists work a standard 40- hour workweek, although many work longer hours. Overtime should be expected if an important research project is on deadline. Research and experimentation can be both physically and mentally tiring, with much of the laboratory work and analysis done while under time restrictions. Some travel may be required to testify at hearings, to collect field samples, or to attend professional conferences.
Toxicologists often work on research that has important health considerations. At a poison control center, for example, toxicologists may try to find information about the poisonous properties of a product while an overdose victim’s life is in danger. Because their work involves studying the impact of toxic material, toxicologists must be willing to handle contaminated material and adhere to the strict safety precautions required.
Toxicologist Career Outlook
Employment opportunities for toxicologists are expected to continue to be good. The growing use of chemicals and pharmaceuticals by society has created demand for trained professionals to determine and limit the health risks associated with potential toxins. In addition, new concerns over bioterrorism and the potential use of chemical weapons will create more demand for toxicologists to help develop new vaccines and other antibiotics. However, according to the Society of Toxicology, the job market for toxicologists, especially in traditional fields, is still expected to be tight.
Job opportunities should be greatest in large urban areas where many large hospitals, chemical manufacturers, and university research facilities are located. Those with the most training and experience will have the best employment prospects.