Toxicologists study and analyse the harmful effects chemicals have on living things and the environment. They test and develop ways to avoid or reduce these effects. For example, toxicologists help to ensure that food and drink products are free from contaminants, and that drugs and medicines are as safe as possible. They protect the environment, for example, by monitoring air pollution.
In fundamental research, you will investigate how chemicals, drugs and other substances affect our biological systems. You will learn how to use a wide range of technology and procedures, including cell culture systems, microscopic techniques, mathematical modelling and work with animals. Then you can use your findings to advise governments, agencies and individuals, for example, that are involved in the development of drugs or food additives.
As an Industrial Toxicologist, you will play a very important role in developing safe and effective products, including food and drink, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, cosmetics and household products.
You'll test products during and after their manufacture, checking that they can work well at levels that don't cause harm and haven't been contaminated by toxic materials. In the food industry, for example, you might test a chemical additive to make sure it is safe.
Industrial Toxicologists also work with regulatory authorities to ensure that their company's products meet national and international safety regulations.
Pharmaceutical Toxicologists ensure the safety of drugs and medicines. You'll prove a drug's safety by first testing its effects on cells in laboratory experiments ('in vitro' testing) and then animals and human volunteers ('in vivo'). If the you already have knowledge of similar drugs' toxicity, this can reduce the amount of testing needed.
Clinical Toxicologists have specialist knowledge of the effects of drugs and other chemicals on humans, and how to treat people who have been poisoned by these chemicals.
You'll usually work in hospitals, treating people who have been poisoned by a drug (either accidentally or intentionally). You will establish the type and amount of the drug taken, and give advice to medical staff on how best to manage and treat the patient.
Occupational Toxicologists ensure safe conditions for the people who produce or handle chemicals every day. You will advise on handling, storing and disposing of chemicals safely.
You'll also give advice on how to treat someone who has been exposed to a chemical at too high a level, and what to do if the chemical has been accidentally released into the environment. You will analyse existing toxicological data to help the government produce regulations for the use of a new chemical.
Forensic Toxicologists are involved in legal cases, investigating and explaining the circumstances in which drugs are involved. You'll take part in a wide range of cases, from drink driving to fatal accidents, suicides and murder investigations where deliberate or accidental poisoning is suspected.
You will appear in court to identify a drug, explain how much was taken, and give your opinion on whether this was a therapeutic dose, or an accidental or deliberate overdose.
Ecotoxicologists protect the environment from harmful chemicals, studying their impact on populations and ecosystems.
You'll trace the movement of pollutants through food chains, identify how wildlife reacts to chemicals (for example, the development of resistance to pesticides in insects) and undertake detailed studies of wildlife in polluted areas.
Regulatory Toxicologists help governments to set and enforce safety regulations for the use of chemicals. You will also answer questions from Politicians and the public.
Other specialist areas
Apart from these main types of toxicology, there are also lots of other specialist areas, including neurotoxicology (to do with the effects of chemicals on the nervous system) and immunotoxicology (effects on the immune system).
There are also Toxicologists who teach and research in universities and research centres.
Being able to read, write and speak Welsh may be an advantage when you’re looking for work in Wales.
Personal Qualities and Skills
To become a Toxicologist, you'll need:
- an enquiring and analytical mind
- to be accurate and methodical when doing experiments
- strong problem-solving skills
- the ability to use and interpret statistics and mathematical models
- teamwork skills
- excellent communication skills
- the ability to explain results clearly and concisely, including in written reports
Because Toxicologists deal with poisonous materials, you must be able to learn and follow safety procedures.
The process of ensuring the safety of chemical products may involve tests on animals, so you might have to be prepared to be involved in this. However, studies increasingly involve cell or tissue models, so you might not be involved in animal testing.
Pay and Opportunities
The pay rates given below are approximate.
- Starting: £27,500 - £30,000
- With experience: £35,000 - £41,000
- Senior Toxicologists earn £44,500 - £50,000
Hours of work
Toxicologists usually work 35-39 hours a week, Monday to Friday. However, they might have early starts, late finishes, shifts and weekend work, depending on the industry and work they are involved in. Part-time opportunities are available.
Where could I work?
Employers include chemical, pharmaceutical and water companies. Many large companies have their own toxicology departments.
Toxicologists also work in hospital laboratories, research bases and in the Civil Service, for example, the Health and Safety Executive; Department of Health; the Food Standards Agency; the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the Environment Agency.
There are opportunities for Toxicologists to teach and carry out research in universities. Postgraduate research students often go on to do postdoctoral research and teaching.
Opportunities for Toxicologists occur in towns and cities throughout the UK.
Where are vacancies advertised?
Vacancies are advertised in local/national newspapers, on recruitment and employers' websites, and on Find a Job (www.gov.uk/jobsearch).
Social media websites, such as LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, are a great way to network, find vacancies and get in contact with possible employers. Make sure that your profile presents you in a professional manner that will appeal to potential employers.
Take a look at our General Information Article
GreenJobs is a job board aimed at people interested in green careers:
Entry Routes and Training
To become a Toxicologist, you'll need at least a relevant degree.
A small number of specialist BSc (Hons) courses are available. Courses usually combine toxicology with related subjects such as forensic science, human biology, immunology, pharmacology and chemistry.
However, most entrants study toxicology at postgraduate MSc or PhD level, after taking first degrees in subjects like biology, chemistry or pharmacology.
A small number of universities offer integrated science degrees (ISciences), aiming to give graduates interdisciplinary skills and knowledge through a problem-based approach.
Some universities offer degree courses with a foundation year. This is an extra year for students who don't have the specified science A levels for entry.
Typically, Clinical Toxicologists are medically qualified, having taken five-year degree courses in medicine to qualify as Doctors, and then gone on to specialise in toxicology. Other entrants have completed a degree or postgraduate degree in toxicology.
If you aren't medically qualified, you might be supporting clinical colleagues by analysing samples from patients for toxic substances.
A great way to get into this career is through an internship. Take a look at our information article '
Training can be in the workplace, covering particular laboratory techniques and specialist equipment. Some employers sponsor Toxicologists to take a postgraduate qualification while in employment.
You can work towards membership recognition, offered by the Royal College of Pathologists (FRCPath) and the Society of Biology (International Diploma in Toxicology, IDT). You can also sit the diploma examination (DABT) of the American Board of Toxicology.
The British Toxicology Society encourages Toxicologists to take part in continuing professional development by doing things like going to relevant conferences and meetings, preparing new teaching and presentation materials, and contributing to scientific journals.
Some entrants have developed laboratory skills during industrial work placements.
Progression could be into a supervisory or management position, perhaps with responsibility for training.
You can go on to join the UK Register of Toxicologists, sponsored by the Society of Biology and the British Toxicology Society. Registration is a significant achievement for Toxicologists and is becoming increasingly important for career progression. To register, you'll need at least five years' relevant experience. Please see the UK Register of Toxicologists website for full registration requirements.
For entry to a degree course in toxicology, the usual minimum requirement is:
- 2/3 A levels where chemistry or biology is usually essential
- GCSEs at grade C/4 and above in your A level subjects
- a further 2/3 GCSEs at grade C/4 and above, including English and maths
Alternatives to A levels include:
- BTEC level 3 qualifications
- the International Baccalaureate Diploma
However, course requirements vary, so please check college/university websites very carefully.
Some universities accept the Welsh Baccalaureate as equivalent to 1 A level.
It is illegal for any organisation to set age limits for entry to employment, education or training, unless they can show there is a real need to have these limits.
Some entrants have developed laboratory skills during industrial work placements.
If you don't have the qualifications needed to enter a degree course, you might be able to start one after completing an Access course, for example, Access to Science. You don't usually need any qualifications to enter an Access course, although you should check this with the course provider.
A foundation year before the start of a science degree is available at some universities and higher education colleges for students who don't have the science A levels usually needed for entry to the course.
Cardiff University offers an MSc in Medical Toxicology by distance learning.
Sponsorship is sometimes available from larger chemical, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and also government departments/agencies and utility companies.
Funding for postgraduate study and research is available, through universities, from the Medical Research Council.
Civil Service Jobs
Publisher: Reed Business Information Ltd
Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI)
Address: 7th floor, Southside, 105 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QT
Tel: 0870 8904333
Medical Research Council (MRC)
Address: 14th Floor, One Kemble Street, London WC2B 4AN
Tel: 01793 416200
Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Scotland
Address: Crichton House, 4 Crichton's Close, Edinburgh EH8 8DT
Tel: 0131 5230493
British Toxicology Society (BTS)
Address: Administrative Office, PO Box 10371, Colchester CO1 9GL
Tel: 01206 226059
UK Register of Toxicologists
Address: Charles Darwin House, 12 Roger Street, London WC1N 2JU
Tel: 020 7685 2559
People Exchange Cymru (PEC)
Public sector recruitment portal for Wales