Forensic toxicology is the study of how chemicals affect the human body. Working within the criminal justice system, forensic toxicologists are an essential part of the team that investigates criminals and crime scenes, specifically looking at substances associated with the crime, according to Explore Health Careers. Those substances include drugs, alcohol, poison, gases, and other chemicals that may have a significant bearing on the outcome of an investigation.
Dating back to the 1700’s, scientists determined that testing bodies for poison or other chemical compounds, that may have led to the person’s death, was the only way to prove that the person was poisoned. The idea of absolute proof, combining science and the legal system, was what led to the field of forensic toxicology. It wasn’t until 1918 that the Medical Examiner’s Office and Toxicology Laboratory was established in New York.
A bachelor’s degree in chemistry, biology, or biochemistry is typically required for entry-level forensic toxicology positions. The American Board of Forensic Toxicology offers four different certifications in the field. The certifications are Diplomate Forensic Toxicology, Diplomate Forensic Alcohol Toxicology, Diplomate Forensic Drug Toxicology, and Fellow Forensic Toxicology. The fellow certification requires a doctorate level of education to attain.
As a forensic toxicologist, you will be working in a laboratory. In most cases, the labs are operated by government agencies or police departments, and they work closely with forensic pathologists in the process to determine what may have happened to a human body. You will most likely be involved in handling and testing body fluids and tissue samples and will learn detailed accounts of crimes that may be emotionally difficult. Intestinal fortitude may be required for this position.
In addition to the possibility of working for a government agency or police department crime lab, a forensic toxicologist is also responsible for sports drug testing, workplace drug testing, and human performance toxicology. These are all valid professions that do not involve working with postmortem bodies in case that aspect of the job creeps you out. Not all forensic toxicologists have to regularly visit the morgue. More recently, private corporations have employed forensic toxicologists to work in hospitals and industrial labs. Some forensic toxicologists work in product safety departments. In this capacity, their responsibility is to determine that products are safe for people, animals, and the environment.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, growth in the forensic science field is expected to grow 6% from 2012-2022.
The primary role of a forensic toxicologist is that of a scientist. In that capacity, they need to be patient, thorough, analytical, curious, precise, and discrete. A strong background and education in laboratory testing and scientific theory is essential. The forensic toxicologist is often called upon to testify in court which makes communication skills absolutely necessary for a successful career in the field.
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Forensic toxicologists often work on investigative teams, but manage their own experiments and testing. Being self-motivated, self-disciplined, and organized assist in making that part of the job more efficient.