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Forensic Toxicologist Job Description

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Forensic toxicologists are scientists who are responsible for testing bodily fluids and tissue samples during autopsies looking for the presence of chemicals. Toxicologists work in laboratories to perform tests on samples collected by crime scene investigators.

Their jobs involve testing for the presence of: gases (e.g., carbon monoxide); illicit drugs; prescription drugs; poisons; alcohol; metals; and other poisons when poisoning or drug overdoses are expected. Their work may help solve criminal cases, and they are often called in to testify in a court of law on the findings of their investigations.

Through specialized tests and methodologies and through the use of highly specialized equipment and chemical reagents, forensic toxicologists are called upon to determine either the presence or the absence of chemicals while documenting each step of the process.

The majority of forensic toxicologists are employed by law enforcement agencies, private drug testing facilities, and government medical examiners.

The job duties of a forensic toxicologist include:

  • Evaluating determinants or contributory factors in the cause and manner of death
  • Performing human-performance forensic toxicology, determining the absence or presence of drugs and chemicals in the blood, hair, tissue, breath, etc.
  • Working with medical examiners and coroners to help establish the role of alcohol, drugs and poisons related to the cause of death
  • Using state-of-the-art chemical and biomedical instrumentation
  • Providing expert witness testimony
  • Complying with safety, quality control, and other administrative criteria

What is Toxicology?

Toxicology is the study of chemicals on living organisms, particularly the poisoning of people. Toxicology involves studying the symptoms, mechanisms, treatments, and detection of poisoning on the body. Chemicals, or toxic agents, may be biological, physical, or chemical. As toxicology and science evolve, knowledge of the effects of toxic agents on the body continues to progress.

Toxicology is also known as the “science of poisons,” as it involves the study of the effects on physical agents or chemicals and the relationship between dose and its effect on the exposed body.

What is Forensic Toxicology?

Forensic toxicology combines toxicology with similar disciplines, including clinical chemistry and pharmacology, to aid in the investigation of deaths surrounding poisoning (accidental or intentional) or drug use. Through samples forensic toxicologists determine which toxic substances are present, in what concentrations, and the effects of the substances on the body.

Forensic toxicology (known as death investigation toxicology or postmortem toxicology) involves not only determining the presence and the amount of toxic substance in the post-mortem body, but how the body’s natural processes affect the substance, including chemical change and dilution.

Education Requirements for Forensic Toxicologists

Forensic toxicologists must complete, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, toxicology, chemistry, clinical chemistry, or a related field, although many forensic toxicologists pursue graduate degrees in this highly competitive field.

Core coursework in a forensic toxicology program typically includes:

  • General toxicology
  • Principles of forensic science
  • Applied statistics for data analysis
  • Toxic substances
  • Forensic medicine
  • Special topics in forensic toxicology

Forensic toxicology is often addressed differently among colleges and universities. As such, forensic toxicology programs may be found in criminal justice, medicine, natural sciences, health science, pharmacology, and physiological sciences departments.

In general, however, individuals are best served by pursuing their undergraduate education in forensic toxicology through an institution that is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accrediting Commission (FEPAC).

Professional Certification for Forensic Toxicologists

Many individuals seeking additional training and recognition in forensic toxicology often pursue professional certification through one or more of the following:

The American Board of Toxicology

To become certified through the American Board of Toxicology, candidates must possess one of the following:

  • A doctorate degree and at least 3 years of full-time experience in toxicology
  • A master’s degree and at least 7 years of full-time experience in toxicology
  • A bachelor’s degree and at least 10 years of full-time experience in toxicology

Candidates must take a certification examination, which includes assessment in three, major areas:

  • Toxicity of agents
  • Organ systems and effects
  • General principles and applied toxicology

The American Board of Forensic Toxicology

The American Board of Forensic Toxicology offers certification as a forensic toxicology specialist. Candidates must possess, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree in one of the natural sciences from an accredited college or university. Study must include an adequate education in biology and chemistry, which may include pharmacology or toxicology. Candidates must also have at least 3 years of full-time experience in forensic toxicology.

Certification is dependent upon passing a comprehensive written examination on the principles and practice of analytical toxicology.

Membership in the Forensic Sciences Foundation or the American Board of Forensic Anthropology also may provide forensic toxicologists with important professional networking opportunities.

Salary Expectations for Forensic Toxicologists

A good indicator of salary expectations for forensic toxicologists is recent job listings:

  • Virginia, Department of Forensic Science: $75,851-$96,807
  • Florida, Forensic Scientist Supervisor, Toxicology: $50,316-$74,772
  • Illinois, Assistant Chief Toxicologist, Medical Examiner: $72,032
  • Texas, Assistant Toxicologist: $65,000-$94,900

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