By Yolanda Smith, BPharm
Toxicology is the scientific study of adverse effects that occur in living organisms due to chemicals. It involves observing and reporting symptoms, mechanisms, detection and treatments of toxic substances, in particular relation to the poisoning of humans.
It includes environmental agents and chemical compounds found in nature, as well as pharmaceutical compounds that are synthesized for medical use by humans. These substances may produce toxic effects in living organisms including disturbance in growth patterns, discomfort, disease and death.
Importance of Dose
The dose of the substance is an important factor in toxicology, as it has a significant relationship with the effects experienced by the individual. It is the primary means of classifying the toxicity of the chemical, as it measures the quantity of the chemical, or the exposure to the substance. All substances have the potential to be toxic if given to living organisms in the right conditions and dose.
LD50 is a common term used in toxicology, which refers to the dose of a substance that displays toxicity in that it kills 50% of a test population. In scientific research, rats or other surrogates are usually used to determine toxicity and the data are extrapolated to use by humans.
A conventional relationship between dose and toxicity has traditionally been accepted, in that greater exposure to a chemical leads to higher risk of toxicity. However, this concept has been challenged by a study of endocrine disruptors and may not be a straightforward relationship.
Subspecialties of Toxicology
There are several branches of toxicology, known as subdisciplines or subspecialties, which focus on particular aspects of toxicology. These include:
- Aquatic toxicology
- Chemical toxicology
- Clinical toxicology
- Environmental toxicology
- Forensic toxicology
- Medical toxicology
- Occupational toxicology
- Regulatory toxicology
Chemical toxicology is a subspecialty of toxicology that focuses on the structure of chemical agents and how it affects their mechanism of action on living organisms.
It is a multidisciplinary field that includes computational and synthetic chemistry, in addition to people who specialize in the fields of proteomics, metabolomics, drug discovery, drug metabolism, bioinformatics, analytical chemistry, biological chemistry and molecular epidemiology. It relies on technological advances to help understand the chemical components of toxicology more comprehensively.
Toxicology and Pharmacology Differences
Toxicology and pharmacology are both studies that involve an understanding of chemical properties and their actions on the body, but differ considerably in other areas.
Pharmacology primarily focuses on the therapeutic effects of pharmaceutical substances and how they can be used most effectively for medical purpose. On the contrary, toxicology is more closely related to the adverse effects that can occur in living organisms that come into contact with chemicals. Toxicologists are also more concerned with measuring the risk of certain substances with risk assessment tools.
A toxicologist is someone who has studied toxicology and works with materials and chemicals to determine the toxic effects they may have on the environments and living organisms. People who are methodical and scientific are well suited for a career in toxicology.
Similarly to the subspecialties of toxicology, toxicologists may also specialize in a certain area of the field.
Last Updated: Jun 4, 2015