Forensic toxicologists find and identify poisonous substances in organic matter.
Forensic toxicologists may test hair, tissue, blood, urine, saliva, or whatever else is available for chemicals. After evidence has been collected from a crime scene, a forensic toxicologist will test the materials present for traces of toxic agents. Toxins can range from prescription drugs to inhaled carbon monoxide to rat poison; all will have different effects on the body that can be identified through the application of complex testing protocols.
Trained toxicologists are experts on poisons and their effects on people. These are scientists who can look at a corpse and spot the signs of the compound that may have killed them; a toxicology report can clear up a lot of things for a crime investigation, including the method and the motive. While the laboratory setting may seem removed from the ins and outs of the investigation, the contributions of a toxicologist can make or break a case. As such, toxicologists may be employed by law enforcement, medical facilities, or drug testing labs. In crime investigations, once the data is interpreted and passed along, their work can end up proving the presence of performance enhancing steroids in an athlete or disproving an overdose theory.
Forensic toxicology work may include...
- Testing for drugs, poisons, gases, metals, alcohol, and other toxins
- Determining how toxins present affected the cause and manner of death
- Interpreting data from lab instruments
- Extracting samples and biological specimens
- Documenting findings in a scientific way
- Providing clear evidence to law enforcement
Most toxicologists will have a background in organic chemistry or pharmacology, but the field requires a wide breadth of scientific and technical knowledge ranging from physiology to genetics. It's a given that any aspiring toxicologist will have spent a lot of time at the undergraduate level building a solid foundation in these subjects, including rigorous coursework in toxicology and chemistry specifically. While it's possible to work in the field with a Bachelor's degree, it's typical for someone on this path to pursue further study at the graduate level, whether that means getting an M.D. or veterinary degree or working toward a PhD in toxicology. This whole period should involve a copious amount of lab work, since most of the techniques and specialized equipment used take practice to master. Additionally, qualified candidates can get a certification, which is awarded upon the successful completion of a written exam covering organ systems, types of toxins, and general principles of toxicology.
Toxicology work is a foundational pillar of forensic investigation with an interesting history and a bright future. If you'd like to be a part of that legacy, consider pursuing forensic toxicology; take some samples and pick your poison!
For more information, please follow the links below:
- The Center for Forensic Science Research & Education
- American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT)
- American Board of Toxicology - Global Toxicology Credential Authority