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Toxicologists investigate and try to counteract the harmful effects of poisonous substances on people, animals and the environment.
Toxicologists are scientists who study and evaluate the risks posed by harmful substances to human, animal and plant life as well as to the environment. Their goal is to diagnose and understand the mechanisms of all sorts of poisons and provide prevention and/or solutions to them.
Toxicologists come from various scientific backgrounds, ranging from biology and chemistry to forensic science.
The work of toxicologists affects many different fields, from medical drug production to criminal investigation. They can specialise in one of these categories:
- Regulatory toxicology: regulatory toxicologists advise governments on environmental hazards and the dangers of chemical exposure, as well as on public health and safety legislation. They also have a public relation (PR) role with the general public and the press.
- Industrial toxicology: industrial toxicologists often work in private companies to make sure that the products they develop are safe for human use (food, alcohol, cosmetics, cleaning products, etc.) and the environment (pesticides, construction materials, energy sources, etc.).
- Academic toxicology: academic toxicologists are skilled researchers working in universities and government agencies such as the Toxicology Unit of the Medical Research Council to advance knowledge on toxic agents.
- Occupational toxicology: occupational toxicologists focus on safety in the workplace, for example in companies where workers handle dangerous chemicals.
- Medical/clinical toxicology: clinical toxicologists have a medical background and can work for the National Health Service (NHS). Their job is to counteract toxic responses in people who have been exposed to certain drugs, radiations or chemicals.
- Forensic toxicology: forensic toxicologists are very experienced scientists who have studied toxic substances and work as expert witnesses in collaboration with the justice system to understand the causes and possible premeditation of an accident or a death related to poisons and chemicals (drugs, alcohol).
- Ecotoxicology: ecotoxicologists are ecologists who investigate short- and long-term reactions from living organisms (fauna, flora) and the natural environment (ecosystems) to toxic substances.
- Contract Research Organisation (CRO) toxicology: CROs are scientific companies which partner with biotech, pharmaceutical and medical industries to develop safe and effective products, from the research to the implementation stage.
- Pharmaceutical toxicology: pharmaceutical toxicologists detect and analyse potentially harmful chemicals during all the stages of development of a new medical drug.
Starting salaries average £20,000 to £26,000 per year.
Salaries in the private sector vary widely. At senior level, toxicologists can expect to earn up to £80,000 per year.
Daily activities of a toxicologist include:
- Identify and analyse toxic substances and their effects on humans, fauna, flora and ecosystems
- Carry out research experiments, in vitro and in vivo tests in a laboratory
- Research antidotes to poisons
- Advise government on the effects of toxic substances and radiation, for example in case of a nuclear accident
- Advise policymakers on environmental and waste management policies
- Create safe medical drugs, household products, pesticides, etc., in collaboration with other scientists
- Develop clinical trials for drugs
- Assess risks in the workplace
- Give evidence of the use of toxic substances in court, in case of forensic analysis
- Liaise with other scientists, policymakers, the general public and the press
- Provide risk assessment training
- Produce written reports
- Publish articles in scientific journals
- Keep abreast of national and international legislation on toxic substances
- Attend scientific conferences
- Give lectures at university
To become a toxicologist, you need at least an undergraduate qualification. Toxicology is usually a component of undergraduate courses in biological science, chemistry, pharmacology, forensic science, medical science or environmental science.
You can also take a BSc in toxicology at the following universities:
- University of East London (UEL)
- University of Plymouth
- Athlone Institute of Toxicology
- University of Hull
You will enhance your employment prospects by specialising in a field of toxicology during an MSc or a research degree (PhD or MPhil).
After you have gained significant experience as a toxicologist, you can apply for an advanced qualification in toxicology:
- International Diploma in Toxicology at the Society of Biology
- Diploma in Toxicology at The Royal College of Pathologists
- Diploma of the American Board of Toxicology
- European Advanced Risk Assessors Accredited Training Programme for highly qualified toxicology experts (TRISK)
Continuing Professional Development (CPD) will help you to progress in your career and to become a registered toxicologist (you need at least five years’ experience). Courses are offered by the British Toxicology Society (BTS), the UK Register of Toxicologists and the Federation of European Toxicologists & European Societies of Toxicology (EUROTOX).
- Interest in public health and safety
- Strong scientific skills
- Analytical skills
- Research skills
- Problem-solving skills
- IT skills
- Excellent oral and written communication skills
- Meticulous attention to detail
- Diplomatic skills
Most toxicologists are based in offices or labs, with regular 9-5 shifts.
If you work as an occupational toxicologist, you will be required to travel to different workplaces to carry out risk assessments.
Forensic toxicologists mainly work in a lab, analysing samples taken from a crime scene, but are also required to testify in court.
As a student, you will benefit from becoming a member of the British Toxicology Society (BTS), which organises courses, workshops, career development opportunities and meetings to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in toxicology.
Major public employers include:
- The National Health Service (NHS)
- The Health and Safety Executive
- The Environment Agency
- The Medical Research Council
Becoming a registered toxicologist listed on the UK Register of Toxicologists and EUROTOX will help you up the ladder.
As you progress, you can become involved in recruiting, training and developing staff or start your own consultancy.
You can also change fields and get into a more specialist area, such neurotoxicology or immunotoxicology, depending on your skills and qualifications.
Also known as…
- Regulatory Toxicologist
- Industrial Toxicologist
- Academic Toxicologist
- Occupational Toxicologist
- Medical Toxicologist
- Forensic Toxicologist
- Biomedical Scientist
- Forensic Scientist
What’s it really like?
Richard Reece-Jones is a freelance toxicologist based in West Yorkshire. He has set up his own consultancy, Reece-Jones Consulting.
What is your job title?
I am an independent regulatory toxicologist.
How long have you been in this particular job?
For 18 months.
What did you do before this job?
I was a pre-clinical safety manager at Renovo Ltd, a biotechnology company.
How did you end up doing this job?
I was made redundant from Renovo after a clinical phase III failure of our lead compound.
What academic qualifications do you have?
I have an honours degree in Pharmacology. I am also a member of the Society of Biology, a Chartered Biologist and an EU-registered Toxicologist (ERT).
Do you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in the real world?
I finished “school” in 1974, but have children who are studying science. I think school gives the idea that “science” is in white coats, doing experiments. It should give pupils a broader idea of how scientists interact with the working world.
What area(s) of toxicology do you specialise in?
My area is regulatory toxicology. I mainly specialise in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology products and medical devices.
What do you do in a typical working day?
My working day is office based, 80% of my time is spent reading papers, preparing summaries of reports, designing development strategies for particular compounds, and in telephone and one-to-one meetings. The remainder is spent visiting laboratories to monitor progress.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
An active mind, an ability for problem solving, attention to detail, scientific adaptability, good verbal and written communications.
Do you get to travel a lot for your work, and if yes, which parts of the world have you been to?
I travel 3 or 4 times a year, mainly in Europe but also occasionally to the USA. However, over the years my scientific career has taken me to the USA, Europe (both west and east), North Africa, Japan, Israel and the Middle East.
What do you like about the job?
I enjoy the diversity of the compound types that mean a varied array of toxicological problems. I also enjoy meeting a diverse group of clients.
What do you dislike about the job?
As an independent consultant, there are periods during which I am doing a lot of computer work and it can be lonely.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Get a wide range of toxicological experience, especially some time in the Contract Research Organisation (CRO) sector. Keep networking and keep up with the regulatory issues of the moment and the current state of new technologies for safety assessment.
If you left this position, what else would you consider or enjoy doing?
If I was not working in toxicology, I would enjoy working in the wildlife/conservation sector.
Do you mind us publishing your salary / rate per hour – this is very helpful for job seekers?
I would prefer not to publish my rate per hour as it does vary, but my last salary was in the region of £50,000 per year.