What is Toxicology?

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Toxicology is the scientific study of adverse effects that occur in living organisms due to chemicals. It involves observing and reporting symptoms that arise following exposure to toxic substances.

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Toxicologists will investigate the mechanisms by which these substances exert toxicity, as well as how to detect the presence of these substances in various sample types. Additionally, toxicology also involves assessing how to effectively treat animals and/or individuals who have been exposed to certain toxicants.

The substances that are assessed by toxicologists 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, of which can include, but are not limited to, disturbances in growth patterns, discomfort, disease and even death.

Importance of dose

The father of modern toxicology, Paracelsus, historically stated "Only the dose is the poison.' The dose of the substance is an important factor in toxicology, as it has a significant relationship with the effects experienced by the individual. As a result, the dose is the primary means of classifying the toxicity of the chemical, as it reflects the quantity of the chemical that the affected person has been exposed to. Taken together, any substance has the potential to be toxic if administered under certain conditions and at a given 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 can lead to higher risk of toxicity. However, this concept has been challenged by a study of endocrine disruptors and therefore may not be a straightforward relationship.


Subspecialties of toxicology

There are several branches of toxicology known as subdisciplines or subspecialties, each of which focus on particular aspects of toxicology. These include:

  • Toxicogenomics
  • Aquatic toxicology
  • Chemical toxicology
  • Clinical toxicology
  • Ecotoxicology
  • Environmental toxicology
  • Forensic toxicology
  • Medical toxicology
  • Occupational toxicology
  • Regulatory toxicology

Chemical 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 and also requires the skills of scientists who specialize in the fields of proteomics, metabolomics, drug discovery, drug metabolism, bioinformatics, analytical chemistry, biological chemistry, and molecular epidemiology. Chemical toxicology 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; however, these two fields are considerably different in many other aspects.

Pharmacology, for example, primarily focuses on the therapeutic effects of pharmaceutical substances and how they can be used most effectively for medical purposes. On the contrary, toxicology more closely studies 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 environment and/or 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.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Sep 24, 2022

Yolanda Smith

Written by

Yolanda Smith

Yolanda graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmacy at the University of South Australia and has experience working in both Australia and Italy. She is passionate about how medicine, diet and lifestyle affect our health and enjoys helping people understand this. In her spare time she loves to explore the world and learn about new cultures and languages.


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