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What Is Environmental Toxicology?

An environmental toxicologist might study how industrial emissions affect the environment.
Oil spills are one area that an environmental toxicologist might study.
A cloud of air pollution.
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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 23 July 2014
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Environmental toxicology is the scientific study of the effects of chemicals on the environment. Specifically, environmental toxicologists research how natural and man-made pollutants impact the health of humans, wildlife, and whole ecosystems. Professionals collect living and nonliving samples from a particular area, study their physical and chemical makeup, and determine the degree of contamination. Environmental toxicology research not only adds to the collective knowledge about pollutants, but studies can also help land developers and protection agencies make better decisions regarding environmental policy.

The general discipline of toxicology has historically focused strictly on human health. Toxicologists perform blood tests, biopsies, and autopsies to identify different chemicals in the body and gauge their effects on body tissue. Environmental toxicology involves much of the same work, but studies are typically broader in scope. Environmental toxicologists test soil, water, and air samples to look for the source pollution, and use their findings to better understand health impacts on native species.

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Many environmental toxicologists specialize by working with a particular type of ecosystem, species, or pollutant. A researcher might, for example, focus his or her studies on the effects of an oil spill on marine life. He or she might begin a research project by identifying the various carcinogens in an oil sample and predicting the consequences the chemicals may have on organisms. The researcher would then measure the saturation of oil at many different ocean sites, collect biological samples from each, and compare predictions with experimental findings. Results are typically organized into an official report that can be reviewed by other toxicologists.

There are many important practical applications of environmental toxicology. The findings of toxicologists are commonly used by government agencies to set new pollution control standards. Nonprofit conservation groups often consult with environmental toxicology experts to analyze the severity of damage in an ecosystem and develop the smartest ways to go about cleaning it up. Land development companies may also work with toxicologists to make sure that clearing and construction efforts are as environmentally-friendly as possible.

In order to begin a career in environmental toxicology, a person usually needs to obtain at least a bachelor's degree. A four-year degree in environmental science, biology, or chemistry may be sufficient to become a field researcher. An individual who wants to design and lead independent studies typically needs a PhD in environmental toxicology and several years of postdoctoral fellowship training. Experienced scientists enjoy fulfilling, exciting careers and spur positive changes in the public's outlook on environmental protection.

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