What Does a Forensic Toxicologist Do?
Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More
A number of crimes involve toxins entering the body, such as poisoning, driving under the influence, and using illegal drugs. Detectives and criminal investigators seek help from forensic toxicologists to get the answers they need when they suspect a chemical substance is related to a crime.
Toxicologists study the presence and effects of toxins on living creatures, particularly humans. They may work for environmental groups, government and law enforcement agencies, or independent corporations and laboratories.
The term forensics means "of or having to do with a question of law." Forensic toxicologists are simply toxicologists who apply their knowledge to legal matters.
The ancient Greeks were perhaps the first society to advance what we now recognize as forensic science when they studied toxins. The Greeks developed an extensive knowledge of poisons, as well as their effects, their signs, and their symptoms. This new knowledge base led ancient investigators to recognize previously undetectable murders due to poisoning.
Tremendous advances have been made in all scientific disciplines since ancient times, and the ability to detect toxins has evolved significantly. Today, forensic toxicologists play a crucial role in solving crimes and helping to determine causes of death.
Forensic Toxicologist Duties & Responsibilities
Forensic toxicologists are responsible for investigating various substances to help solve crimes or detect unlawful contamination of the environment, food, or water supply. This includes:
- Analyzing samples from bodily fluids and tissues to determine the presence or absence of harmful or intoxicating chemicals
- Collecting and testing for harmful contaminants in food or the environment
- Evaluating determinants and contributing factors in the cause and manner of death
- Using chemical and biomedical instrumentation
- Providing expert testimony
- Working with medical examiners and coroners to help establish the role of substances related to the cause of death
In the law enforcement sphere, forensic toxicologists might work for criminal justice agencies, police departments, or government labs. They might look for poisons and toxins such as alcohol, drugs, metals, chemicals, and gases. Sometimes, the toxicologist's findings are the primary factor in determining whether a crime was committed.
Toxicologists might also work for regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and poison control centers to help detect dangerous chemicals in the environment, food, and water supply.
Forensic Toxicologist Salary
Salaries for forensic toxicologists can vary widely and depend on one's work location and employer:
- Median Annual Salary: $59,000 ($28.37/hour)
- Top 10% Annual Salary: $94,000 ($45.19/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $34,000 ($16.35/hour)
Source: PayScale.com, 2019
Education, Training, & Certification
Forensic toxicologists must complete a bachelor's degree in forensic science, chemistry, clinical chemistry, or a related field through an institution that is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accrediting Commission (FEPAC). Although a graduate degree is not required, many toxicologists go on to pursue a higher degree to advance their career.
Coursework typically includes:
- General toxicology
- Principles of forensic science
- Applied statistics
- Toxic substances
- Forensic medicine
Forensic Toxicologist Skills & Competencies
Forensic toxicologists require certain qualities to perform their job properly. In addition to having a fascination with the effects of chemicals on the human body, as well as the environment, they should have these traits:
- Highly analytical to determine accurate findings
- Patience, efficiency, and focus to gather results under pressure
- Ability to follow procedures to achieve reliable results
- Excellent written and verbal communication skills, as they may be called upon to provide courtroom testimony
- Ability to handle emotionally upsetting details of a crime
The field of forensic toxicology has grown to include drug and alcohol testing for employers and traffic enforcement officials, as well as testing animal samples for wildlife criminal investigators. In addition, this field has expanded to include testing for date rape drugs and performance-enhancing substances.
Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics does not track forensic toxicology specifically, they do provide information on forensic science technicians, which is related to forensic toxicology. Employment of forensic science technicians is projected to continue to grow 17% to 2026.
Forensic toxicologists perform most of their work in laboratories, where they may be standing for long periods of time. The lab is usually run by a private drug testing company, a medical examiner's office, or the police. You may also spend part of your day working out in the field, such as at a crime scene collecting samples.
Expect to work 40 to 60 hours a week, as you manage a heavy workload under stringent deadlines. Hours need to be flexible, as forensic toxicologists are expected to be on call to collect and analyze evidence. In addition, working out in the field visiting crime scenes may also require extended or unusual hours.
How to Get the Job
The Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SFT) provides job listings for those seeking forensic toxicology jobs. Other job sites advertising these positions include jobrapido, jobsgalore, and Indeed. In addition, these websites offer tips on resume and cover letter writing, as well as getting and mastering an interview.
Look for internships at organizations in your area. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offers paid internships The Center for Forensic Science Research and Education (CFSRE) also offers internship programs, as well as other types of programs for those new to the field.
Comparing Similar Jobs
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not specifically provide information on forensic toxicology careers, they do supply information on forensic science technicians and similar jobs:
- Biological technician: $43,800
- Chemical technician: $47,280
- Chemists and materials scientist: $76,280
- Medical and chemical laboratory technologist and technician: $51,770
- Environmental science and protection technician: $45,490
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017
If you enjoy laboratory work and find analysis appealing, you might enjoy working as a forensic toxicologist. Although the work can be repetitive and redundant at times, it's also interesting and extremely important.
In addition, a career in forensic toxicology can be a great way to apply your scientific knowledge toward a career in criminology or criminal justice.