The Job and What's Involved

Toxicologists study the effects of chemicals on humans, animals, plants and the environment. They look at ways in which the harmful effects of chemicals can be avoided, reduced, treated or reversed, and may identify the causes of fatal damage.

The work of toxicologists covers many different areas:

Industrial toxicologists work in the development of products ranging from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics, food, drink and household goods. They test products during and after their manufacture to make sure they are safe and effective to use.

Pharmaceutical toxicologists carry out tests on new drugs before they are allowed to be used on patients. After carrying out a wide range of experiments, they are able to judge the benefits of the drugs against any risks there may be to patients who take them.

University toxicologists combine lecturing with carrying out their own research in the laboratory. They often act as advisers on the safety of chemicals to industry and the government.

Clinical toxicologists may have a medical qualification in addition to one in toxicology. They have specialist knowledge of the effects of drugs and chemicals on human beings, and work in hospitals helping in the diagnosis and treatment of patients suffering from different types of poisoning.

Forensic toxicologists deal with the legal aspects of poisons and drugs, giving evidence and advice within the justice system, as well as laboratory investigations in cases where poisons or drugs are suspected as contributory causes of death. Forensic toxicology is a specialist area of analytical chemistry.

Ecotoxicologists study the effects of chemicals on the environment, for example tracing the effect of particular chemicals on food chains.

Regulatory toxicologists are most likely to work for the government. They investigate information drawn up by companies on products and advise on whether these products should be licensed and sold.

Occupational toxicologists measure the effects of chemicals on human health and advise on ways in which they can be handled safely. Their professional knowledge is called for when chemicals are accidentally released into the environment.

Toxicologists usually work from 9am to 5pm, five days a week. Those carrying out experimental work may need to be more flexible. Toxicologists may be on call during some weekends and evenings to cover any emergencies that might occur.

The majority of toxicology work is carried out in laboratories. Toxicologists may occasionally need to travel to visit the sites of incidents. Protective clothing is worn when working in laboratories and when visiting scenes of accidents.

Some toxicologists are required to work with animals.

Starting salaries for a toxicologist may be around £20,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are between 3,000 and 5,000 people working as toxicologists in the UK.

Opportunities exist in the National Health Service (NHS), the Forensic Science Service (FSS), with other forensic service providers, and in industry and consultancy throughout the country. However, industrial jobs tend to be concentrated in the South and the Midlands.

At present, the number of people applying for jobs is about equal to the number of posts available. There are a growing number of jobs for experienced toxicologists with consultancy firms.

The British Toxicology Society newsletter and website carry details of job vacancies. Vacancies may also be advertised in local and national newspapers, and in publications such as New Scientist. Representatives of the British Toxicology Society attend university careers fairs where they give information on work opportunities.

Education and Training

Entry is with a science degree. Students with A levels/H grades, or equivalent qualifications, in science subjects can apply for degree courses that combine toxicology with other subjects, such as biochemistry or pharmacology.

Chemistry or maths may be required at AS level. Skills and knowledge in analytical chemistry are highly valued by some employers.

Graduates with degrees in the following subjects can take a full or part-time course leading to a Masters degree specialising in toxicology:

- chemistry
- biochemistry
- pharmacology
- pharmacy
- medicine
- veterinary medicine
- environmental science

It may be possible to gain a post that offers further training on the job, although it is becoming more usual to take a postgraduate qualification.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Entry to a degree is usually with a minimum of two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or the equivalent. Entry to a postgraduate course is generally with a good first degree (usually a 2.1 or above). Candidates should check entry requirements with individual institutions.

After completing a Masters degree, students may choose to study for a PhD or MPhil by carrying out research into toxicology at a university.

After several years' experience, toxicologists can take an advanced qualification in toxicology, such as a:

  • Diploma of the Institute of Biology in Toxicology.
  • Diploma of the American Board of Toxicology.
  • Diploma in Toxicology from the Royal College of Pathologists.
  • Diploma in Medical Toxicology from the University of Wales.
  • MSc in Analytical Toxicology.

Ecotoxicologists may take a further qualification in pollution science, pesticide science or waste management.

Clinical toxicologists take exams set by the Royal College of Pathologists.

Qualified toxicologists with five years' experience and evidence of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) can apply for membership of the British Toxicology Society.

Membershio of the British Toxicology Society includes registration with the Federation of European Toxicologists and European Societies of Toxicology (EUROTOX).

The Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners (CRFP) offers an opportunity for registration as a forensic toxicologist based on current job competence.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A toxicologist should:

  • Have a high level of technical and scientific knowledge.
  • Be able to work accurately, paying close attention to the smallest details.
  • Be good at applying scientific knowledge to practical work.
  • Be able to explain complicated technical information to non-technical people.
  • Have good written skills.
  • Understand the need for confidentiality in their work, especially in forensic toxicology.
  • Be aware of the need for public health and safety.
  • Be able to work well as part of a team.
  • Have good IT skills.
  • Be able to keep up to date with advances in their field.

Your Long Term Prospects

Promotion may be possible to a more senior position, such as project manager. This usually results in spending less time in the laboratory and more time on administration and supervision.

It may be possible for a toxicologist to become self-employed, or to work on a freelance basis.

Get Further Information

British Toxicology Society (BTS),
Administration Office, PO Box 249,
Macclesfield SK11 6FT
Tel: 01625 267881

NHS Careers,
PO Box 2311, Bristol BS2 2ZX
Tel: 0845 6060 655

Royal College of Pathologists,
2 Carlton House Terrace,
London SW1Y 5AF
Tel:020 7451 6700

The Science Council,
32-36 Loman Street, Southwark,
London SE1 0EH
Tel: 020 7922 7888

The Institute of Biomedical Science,
12 Coldbath Square, London EC1R 5HL
Tel: 020 7713 0214

The Association for Clinical Biochemistry,
130-131 Tooley Street, London SE1 2TU
Tel: 020 7403 8001

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