What is Toxicology?

November 30, 2020

Technological and scientific advancements have been responsible for the creation of thousands of new chemical compounds, many of which have the potential to pose a threat to human health. Toxicology, a field that shifted from an empirical science to a volumetric science with the emergence of chemistry in the nineteenth century, seeks to understand the effects these compounds have on the world around us — in the environment, human body, and beyond. 

Toxicology is the study of the effects of chemical, biological, and physical agents on living organisms, particularly humans. Scientists and researchers working in this field measure and analyze substances, particles, pollutants, and bacterium to determine the potential threats they pose to humans and other living organisms. Public health practitioners rely on toxicologists to measures what we cannot see and inform us of the hidden dangers that pose serious threats to health and well-being.

Toxicology is critical in determining the materials, substances, and ingredients that can and cannot be used across a variety of sectors, including medicine, construction, and air and water quality control. Toxicologists can determine the proper dosage and safe exposure limits of any questionable substances exposed to the living world. 

Through combining chemistry, biology, environmental science, and pharmacology, toxicology is truly multi-disciplinary and a critical area of public health that works to combat negative health outcomes across large swaths of populations. 

Types of Toxicology Sciences

There are multiple concentrations that exist under the broader umbrella of toxicology. A few types include:

Forensic Toxicology

By bringing the scientific methods of toxicology together with research in legal contexts, forensic toxicologists play an integral role in criminal cases and are often used to help determine a cause of death or more generally to examine the role that substances played in a crime or death. 

In addition, forensic toxicology is also used to drug-test individuals, whether it's in office settings, legal cases, or sports leagues. Forensic toxicologists not only conduct research and take tests, but they also use their findings to interpret results and collaborate with larger forensic teams and law enforcement agencies.

Environmental Toxicology

Environmental toxicology relates to how substances—man-made and/or natural—interact with the world and our surrounding environment, which includes interpreting possible adverse human health effects due to exposure to environmental toxicants.

Those who specialize in this area can be found working in environmental regulation, management, and hazardous waste. They also cover emerging trends in environmental hazards, such as microplastics or increased mercury levels in fish.

Columbia Environmental Health Sciences Professor Ana Navas-Acien explores connections between arsenic exposure and increased health risks 
June 2020: Southwestern Correctional Facilities’ Water Puts Inmate Health at Risk
May 2019: Arsenic in Drinking Water May Change Heart Structure
November 2016: Link Between Arsenic Exposure and a Cause of Type 1 Diabetes

Medical Toxicology

Through exploring the effects that drugs and medical procedures have on humans, medical toxicologists uncover the adverse effects of medical treatments and establish proper dosage and exposure guidelines for substances. They typically work in areas such as drug abuse, chemical exposures, poison or envenomations (venom from an animal bite or sting), and more.

Careers in Toxicology

Toxicologists work in a variety of settings and concentrations, including:

Government Agencies

Some toxicologists work in local, regional, or federal government agencies to aid in the regulation of substances in relation to the greater public. In this setting, they work with lawmakers to create legislation and methods for minimizing exposure to harmful substances.

Academia and Research

As global human activity impacts the environment, toxicology researchers are always in demand, as are qualified professionals to teach the next generation of toxicologists. 

Toxicologists who pursue a career in research and teaching help build on the profession and produce important, up-to-date findings on harmful substances. 

WATCH: In a demonstration flight over Brooklyn, Environmental Health Sciences Prof. Markus Hilpert shows off Columbia Mailman School’s drone collecting air samples up to 400 feet. Using technology poised to revolutionize environmental exposure assessments, Dr. Hilpert helped discover a link between air pollution and neurological disorders.




Toxicologists play a critical role in the field of medicine, where they work on the development of new drugs or treatments to determine their safety and regulated use. Medical toxicologists in hospital emergency departments also work directly with patients who have been exposed to unsafe levels of toxins.

Professional Organizations or Industries

Some organizations are more directly involved in studying harmful substances than others. In this case, toxicologists are employed to help determine operational and product safety for all involved. For businesses whose work directly affects the environment or chemical production, toxicologists work to keep the company in line with compliance and safety measures. 

Explore More: The Columbia Superfund Research Program is globally reducing arsenic exposure through interdisciplinary science and remediation. 

Toxicology Degree Programs

To work in this field or any associated branches of toxicology, you must hold at least an associate degree in toxicology or a related field. 

The level of education required for toxicologists depends on the individual’s career goals. With two to four year degrees, graduates are qualified to work in laboratories, research environments, and animal care settings.

Aspiring toxicologists could also consider pursuing a Ph.D. or Master’s degree in the field. The Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health offers an M.S. in Environmental Health Sciences, Environmental Toxicology concentration. 

Following the completion of the Columbia Public Health toxicology program, graduates are prepared to pursue careers in government, non-profits, pharmaceuticals, academia, and research.


To explore more about the Columbia Mailman School Department of Environmental Health Sciences Toxicology track, visit our program page for more information on program requirements, admissions info, and more.