What is a Forensic Toxicologist?
A forensic toxicologist is a scientist who specializes in the analysis and identification of gasses, liquids, and other forms of toxic substances. As experts of biology, chemistry, and pharmacology, forensic toxicologists use their extensive knowledge of these subjects to help law enforcement officials solve crimes which are typically violent in nature; e.g., rape and homicide. These scientists work from behind the scenes in forensic laboratories, more commonly called crime labs.
What Does a Forensic Toxicologist Do?
Establish Presence of Toxins
Regardless of the type of agency for which they work, the primary job duty of every forensic toxicologist is to first establish either a presence or absence of toxic substances. Toxicology tests are especially important to law enforcement agencies because investigators use the results of tests to determine whether an event was caused purely by accident or if a crime had indeed been committed.
Forensic toxicologists are also important to regulatory agencies. For example, toxicologists who work for the Department of Environmental Protection help protect the population from hazardous food and water contaminations by regularly confirming the absence of such chemicals.
Identify and Quantify Toxic Substances
Once the presence of a substance has been determined, it is the duty of a forensic toxicologist to identify that particular substance and quantify its level of concentration. A common scenario in which a toxicologist quantifies toxin levels is after an automobile accident when the driver’s degree of alcohol and/or drug impairment is in question.
Forensic toxicologists who work for law enforcement agencies recreate the conditions and incidences of a crime in order to solve the case. This duty often requires toxicologists to visit the scene of a crime and reconstruct it later in a forensics lab to study it further. They may also conduct experiments both in the lab and in the field in order to test toxicity levels in different temperatures and environments.
In addition to helping criminal investigators solve crimes, forensic toxicologists also work with coroners and medical examiners to help determine causes of death. For example, in instances where there is no apparent cause, toxicologists might uncover the incident was a tragic case of carbon monoxide poisoning or an accidental drug and/or alcohol overdose.
On the other hand, while sometimes it may appear as though an individual died of natural causes, a toxicology report may suggest otherwise; e.g., foul play, homicide, or premeditated poisoning.
Provide Court Testimony
After an investigation has come to a close, law enforcement officials will then prosecute the suspect/s and attempt to get a conviction. A forensic toxicologist’s job duty during this phase is to serve as an expert witness and testify in court. Their testimonies usually contain information regarding the methods used to obtain evidence and their techniques for testing and analysis. A toxicologist will then detail to the court the specifics of the toxic substance/s they identified.
Document Absolutely Everything
Perhaps a forensic toxicologist’s most important job duty is accurately documenting everything that they do. The results from their research, experiments, and each crime that they help to solve will not only influence how cases are managed in the future, but their work also determines how societies protect themselves from food and water contaminations.
Where Does a Forensic Toxicologist Work?
A forensic toxicologist may work for a variety of different types of employers, but all toxicologists spend most of their time inside laboratories surrounded by state-of-the-art scientific equipment. For example, some are employed by public regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration or the United States Environmental Protection Agency. These toxicologists study poisonous toxins as they relate to the public, both to prevent people from ever being exposed and also to discover counteractive treatments for if or when they are.
Some, of course, work for law enforcement agencies helping investigators solve crimes. Others are employed by morgues where they work alongside coroners and medical examiners to determine cause of death. And finally, academic institutions and universities also hire forensic toxicologists to research and teach students.
How is a Forensic Toxicologist Different from a Forensic Chemist?
Both forensic chemists and toxicologists spend the majority of their careers analyzing hazardous substances otherwise known as toxins. However, there is a significant difference between the two fields — a difference that lies in the specific set/s of questions each scientist must ask and answer. For example, forensic chemists primarily analyze controlled substances such as narcotics, illegal drugs, and pharmaceutical medications. In addition to identifying substances, they are most often responsible for determining their weight and amount. Law enforcement agencies then use this information to prosecute suspects according to the federally-scheduled class of that substance, its amount, and whether they were apprehended for manufacturing, distribution, or possession.
On the other hand, while forensic toxicologists are certainly expected to identify and quantify toxins, the question/s they must answer is when and how that substance affects the human body. Additionally, even when simply identifying a substance their job is often a little more problematic than that of a forensic chemist. This is because the natural, physiological processing of substances through inhalation and digestion can drastically alter its chemical makeup.
What are the Requirements to Become a Forensic Toxicologist?
First, forensic toxicologists must have a high school diploma or GED, preferably spending their high school careers focusing on sciences like biology and chemistry. Next, aspiring toxicologists need to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree. Ideally, they would pursue a major in toxicology, but as most institutions do not offer toxicology as a degree, majoring in chemistry, biology, or pharmacology is perfectly acceptable.
Although it is not technically required, earning a graduate and/or doctoral degree gives an aspiring toxicologist the ability to pursue work in the specialized area of his or her choice, such as genomic technologies, cellular physiology, or environmental and molecular toxicology.
In the majority of states, forensic toxicologists are not required to obtain professional certification and/or licensure. For the most part, however, employers strongly prefer that candidates are actively pursuing or have already obtained certification through the American Board of Forensic Toxicology.
In order to earn certification, the ABFT requires applicants to hold a four-year bachelor’s degree and have worked professionally in either a forensic or medical laboratory for a minimum of three years. Once these prerequisites are fulfilled, candidates can choose from four different certifications: Diplomate Forensic Toxicology, Diplomate Forensic Drug Toxicology, Diplomate Forensic Alcohol Toxicology, or Fellow Forensic Toxicology. However, for the last certification listed here requires that applicants hold a doctorate.
What Skills are Needed to be a Forensic Toxicologist?
There are numerous skills one needs to possess in order to become a successful forensic toxicologist. While some should be hardwired traits that come rather naturally to a person, many skills can only be earned through years of education, training, and hard work. While the following list is a great start to understanding some of these requirements, it should be noted that this is not a complete list and there are likely many more skills that a forensic toxicologist would need.
- Ability to Think Scientifically – For a successful career in forensic toxicology, thinking scientifically is nonnegotiable. This requires an ability to be flexible, continually adapt theories to accommodate new and changing information, and approach problems logically with the scientific method.
- Mastery of Technology – Working in a forensic laboratory with highly-advanced machinery and equipment requires a complete mastery of technology. Forensic toxicologists must also possess engineering and computer skills so that they are able to fix equipment in cases of malfunction and/or failure.
- Multitasking Skills – Forensic toxicologists are responsible for collecting and analyzing substantial quantities of scientific data. In order to keep their test samples, supplies, and test results well-maintained and organized, toxicologists must be able to multitask efficiently and rather effortlessly.
- Quality Control Skills – Imperative for any and all types of forensics work, toxicologists must be able to identify and quantify substances with complete and total accuracy. Ensuring that no sample of evidence is ever contaminated and consequently inadmissible in a court trial, this level of precision requires that toxicologists utilize quality control skills in every task they perform. From monitoring equipment, studying indicators, gauges, and other sources of measurement, they must maintain the highest standards in all that they do.
- Coordination and Fine Motor Skills – In addition to working with complex technologies and delicate equipment, the substances that a forensic toxicologist are responsible for testing on a daily basis pose severe health risks and can even be lethal. Handling such toxins and poisons day in and day out requires great coordination, steady hands, and incredibly fine motor skills
- Apply Old Information to Solve New Problems – During their training and education, forensic toxicologists are taught about the cells of living organisms and the ways in which they react to their environments, other cells, and exposure to a wide variety of substances. They also learn about the laws of physics, how fluids, gasses, and solids function, and the ways in which they interact at an atomic level. But it is not enough just to learn and retain such knowledge, because once a toxicologist begins his or her professional career, they are expected to apply all of this information to solve new problems.
- Attention to Detail – The substance samples that a forensic toxicologist has to work with are often no bigger than a drop of water, if not entirely microscopic. For example, they must frequently examine one or two single strands of hair to determine whether or not it came from a human or an animal. This requires a skillful eye and the ability to pay close attention to even the smallest of details.
What Tools and Techniques are Used by a Forensic Toxicologist?
While there are many more methods than what is detailed below, the following list provides a concise example of some tool and techniques that forensic toxicologists may use to identify and quantify substances.
When examining materials pulled from a crime scene, forensic toxicologists use infrared lighting and ultraviolent spectrophotometry to spot visible signs of spilled and dried fluids such as blood, urine, various types of mixing agents, and other types of liquids.
Forensic toxicologists must first collect samples of the substances they need to test, but there is a particular technique they use to ensure those samples are organized, well-preserved, and never compromised or contaminated. Wearing hazmat suits, gloves, and other protective gear, each sample is collected, sealed, and labeled with its own unique identification number.
A procedure that separates and isolates any foreign compounds that are not part of a cell’s natural structure, forensic toxicologists use chromatographic detection to prove or disprove the presence of unidentified substances in the cells of organisms.
By releasing antibodies and screening for a substance to react, forensic toxicologists use the immunoassay technique when they know exactly which toxin they are looking for. In other words, the immunoassay technique is used to confirm the presence of a known particular substance.
When testing urine for drugs, the most reliable technique used by forensic toxicologists is mass spectrometry. Through a process of ionization, every substance within a given sample is separated based on its mass, allowing toxicologists to isolate and confirm the chemical/s for which they are looking.
When determining cause of death, specimens are taken from different areas of the body because each tissue holds its own unique set of useful information. For example, while a liver sample can help toxicologists determine quantities of recent drug and alcohol use, fingernails and toenails can tell a toxicologist what kind of substances the deceased used months before death.
In order to rule out false positives and guarantee that the results of every test is accurate, forensic toxicologists use a technique called confirmation testing. Essentially, they will test samples at least twice using another type/s of analysis.
What are the Advantages of Being a Forensic Toxicologist?
Forensic toxicologists enjoy their careers for numerous reasons, listed below are some of those reasons.
- Exciting – Although many cases may be similar in nature, each one is unique in its own way. Every day as a toxicologist brings an exciting new puzzle to solve.
- Societal Importance – A career that requires specific knowledge and talent, toxicologists fill an incredibly important role in society by solving crimes with hard science.
- Saving Lives – By preventing exposure and discovering ways to counteract its effects, toxicologists help to save lives and keep the population safe through their research.
- Well-Paid – The career of a forensic toxicologist may not be easy, but they are fairly compensated with high salaries.
- Intellectually Stimulating – Long after their formal education is complete, forensic toxicologists continue to learn more about their scientific field every day.
- Security – Each city in every state needs forensic toxicologists to help solve crimes and determine cause of death in suspicious cases.
What are the Disadvantages of Being a Forensic Toxicologist?
There are, of course, some disadvantages to being a forensic toxicologist. Below are some of the most common.
- Late Start – Due to the length of time a forensic toxicologist is required to spend on their education, typically around 10 years, most do not actually enter the workforce until they are almost 30 years old.
- Student Loans – Another disadvantage linked to a toxicologist’s extended education is the number of student loans they must take and the amount of loan debt they will eventually have to pay off.
- High Risk – Although they spend a decade or more training and learning how to work safely with dangerous chemicals and toxins, all it takes is one mistake to put a forensic toxicologist at risk for serious health complications and even death.
- Stagnation – Unfortunately, forensic toxicology is one of the few careers in science that offers limited opportunities for advancement.
What is the Job Outlook for Forensic Toxicologists?
As of now, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep track of job outlook for forensic toxicologists. However, the profession falls under two different categories, both of which look promising. First, the career of a toxicologist is similar to that of a biochemist. Both scientists work in laboratories, conduct tests and experiments, and are responsible for producing accurate results. The BLS predicts that biochemists will see an 11-percent increase in employment opportunities by 2026, a much more accelerated growth rate than that of other careers.
The second category that a forensic toxicologist falls under is medical scientist, a career in which professionals also work in laboratories performing research to improve human health. According to the BLS, medical scientists can expect a 13-percent growth by 2026, which is even greater than that of a biochemist.
Combining the information from the two careers above, forensic toxicologists should see anywhere from an 11 to 13-percent increase in their employment opportunities by 2026.
How Much Does a Forensic Toxicologist Make?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track salary figures for forensic toxicologists, but examining the two professions that most closely represent the field provides valuable insight. For example, in 2017, medical scientists earned up to $110, 210 in the state of Pennsylvania. Those in California came in second making over $104,000 a year, and the third highest paid medical scientists in the country earned $94,180 in the state of New York. The highest paid biochemists of 2017 lived in Massachusetts bringing in $111,350; $105,460 in California; and still breaking six-figures, biochemists living in Texas made just over $100,000.
What Professions are Similar to Forensic Toxicologist?
Often working together, medical examiner is perhaps the career most similar to that of a forensic toxicologist; however, medical examiners are licensed medical doctors. They are responsible for determining cause of death, the manner in which someone died, and identifying any other circumstances and/or conditions relevant to the deceased.
Arson and Fire Investigator
Although arson and fire investigators are technically law enforcement officers, they are also highly-trained researchers with knowledge about fire and various types of chemicals. After a fire, they are responsible for analyzing the remains and finding clues to suggest whether a fire began accidentally or intentionally using gasoline and/or other accelerants.
Essential to crime scene investigations, ballistics experts study firearms. By analyzing bullets for discharge striations and walls, vehicles, and other surfaces for bullet marks, a ballistics expert can pinpoint the exact weapon and/or type of explosive that was used. Oftentimes, they can even determine where it may have been purchased.
Forensic Print Analyst
A forensic print analyst studies the distinctive prints of the human body; e.g., fingerprints, footprints, and palm prints. In addition to obtaining prints directly from individuals, they also visit crime scenes to pull and preserve prints from various types of surfaces. They then transport those prints to a crime lab where they will analyze them later, search print databases, and ultimately match them with the identity to whom they belong.