Before Covid-19, polysubstance overdose was a major public health emergency in the United States. This is referred to as exposure to more than one medication, with or without the person’s knowledge, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Usually, a mix of illegally produced fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and prescription opiates leads to death by drug overdose.
Sadly, between 2013 to 2019, the number of overdose deaths employing synthetic opioids grew by 1,040 percent (CDC 2021). Accurate autopsy reports are necessary to stop the opioid crisis from getting worse, and forensic toxicologists are in high demand. In government or law enforcement laboratories, forensic toxicologists look for substances and chemicals that may have played a role in overdose deaths or criminal activity.
Identification of illegal chemicals and assessing whether a victim’s death was caused by a self-inflicted overdose or malicious intent are daily tasks in forensic toxicology. Other jobs include administering administrative drug tests and locating dangerous chemicals in both indoor and outdoor settings.
Most of the time, forensic toxicologists use small biological samples taken from corpses in their lab work. They might closely collaborate with forensic pathologists, law enforcement, or prosecutors to ascertain how their results will affect court cases. Toxicologists, on the other hand, who specialize in administering drug testing could have various contacts and little to no engagement with the judicial system.
A solid understanding of natural science and the scientific process, an obsession with accuracy, empathy for victims and their loved ones, and a desire to offer factual information to support law enforcement and public health authorities are all requirements for becoming a forensic toxicologist.
OUTLOOK FOR THE FORENSIC TOXICOLOGIST CAREER
Since forensic toxicology is a specialist discipline, there is not a lot of information available that is specifically relevant to this profession. To obtain a precise career outlook for this profession, it is possible to look at the data for related positions.
For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) forecasts a 16% increase in employment for forensic science technicians between 2020 and 2030 (a similar sector). The overlap between opportunities for forensic toxicologists and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, which is predicted to rise by 11% over the same period, is something job searchers should be aware of (BLS 2021). Compared to the national average for all occupations, both jobs are increasing more quickly (8 percent). In contrast to the 36,500 additional clinical laboratory technologists needed in the next ten years, it is predicted that 2,700 new forensic science roles would be needed.
RESPONSIBILITIES & SPECIALTIES IN FORENSIC TOXICOLOGY
Postmortem toxicology, human performance toxicology, and forensic drug toxicology are the subdisciplines of forensic toxicology, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
To determine the involvement of alcohol, drugs, and other substances in the cause of a specific death, forensic toxicologists collaborate with coroners, medical examiners, and pathologists in postmortem toxicology. To determine whether deteriorating compounds were present in a deceased person, forensic toxicologists examine biological fluids, tissues, and, in some situations, hair, and bone. By identifying the cause of death, their interpretations can help with the investigation of crimes, suicides, and overdoses.
Similar to postmortem toxicology, human performance toxicology uses specimens that are often taken from living individuals for chemical examination. Criminal investigations involving drunk driving, vehicular assault, child custody disputes, and sexual assault can all benefit from evaluating how drugs, alcohol, and other substances affect a person’s performance and conduct. A thorough understanding of the precise impact and timing of foreign chemicals in the human body is necessary for the interpretation of test results in human performance toxicology.
Testing for the presence of specific chemicals in a living human body is another function of forensic drug toxicology. This kind of testing can be carried out in a variety of settings, such as compliance monitoring, parole and probation sessions, and doping control in athletics. The use of drugs at work puts safety and productivity at risk, thus forensic drug toxicology also protects against it.
Such testing may be crucial in delicate and risky fields including law enforcement, the military, and transportation. Although forensic drug toxicology has a more limited scope than the other subdisciplines, there are more tests performed, and many occupational testing laboratories use customized equipment configurations to increase throughput.
A forensic toxicologist often uses a five-step system to analyze a specimen in each subdiscipline:
- Isolation of the questioned ingredient
- Comparison-based detection and characterization of the substance
- Confirmatory testing is used to identify the drug.
- Comparison of the substance’s quantity with the numbers from the calibration curve
- A thorough analysis of test results, accessible literature, and case details to interpret the toxicological findings
Modern analytical methods, similar to those used in research and medical facilities, are used by forensic toxicologists. Analytical chemistry techniques and instrumental analysis are needed for this. Although forensic toxicologists spend most of their time in laboratories or other private facilities, they occasionally testify in court and travel into the field for roadside testing and collecting.
This can be a lonely occupation despite the variety of workplaces. Forensic toxicologists may focus solely on one chemical during an entire shift. Forensic toxicologists, whose work can determine whether or not justice is served, need persistence and mental sharpness.
Skills of Forensic Toxicologists
Working with delicate materials in potentially dangerous conditions is a part of forensic toxicology. You may benefit from gaining specific abilities if you want to be safe in the field and perform well in your job. Forensic toxicologists typically possess the following skills:
- Forensic toxicologists can arrive at appropriate conclusions by using their critical thinking abilities.
- Paying attention to the little things can help you avoid making costly or deadly mistakes.
- By comprehending chemical processes and structures, forensic toxicologists can handle materials and equipment properly.
- A scientific strategy that enables workers in a forensic toxicology lab to function independently of their emotions is necessary.
- Last important skill is Communication skills. Forensic toxicologists frequently share their findings with authorities like doctors, police, lawyers, and judges.
HOW TO BECOME A FORENSIC TOXICOLOGIST
Here’s a glimpse of requirement of one of recruitments notified by Union Public Service Commission, India.
Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
Students normally need to earn a bachelor’s degree after high school. Aspiring forensic toxicologists typically pursue a bachelor’s degree in hard science, especially in chemistry with the following subjects, or enroll in a forensic science program that focuses on those subjects.
- Veterinary science
- Environmental Biology
An undergraduate degree in forensic science with a focus on chemistry is available from the University of Central Florida. In-depth exposure to chemistry, laboratory science, pharmacology, and analysis is part of the training.
Arizona State University, which provides online bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences or biochemistry, is another alternative for undergraduates.
Although these degrees are not specifically geared toward criminal justice and investigation, the rigorous scientific training they offer can give aspiring forensic toxicologists a solid foundation. In any case, getting practical experience through internships and university labs is essential for improving one’s professional resume and graduate school applications.
A forensic science bachelor’s degree is available on-campus at the University of North Dakota. Chemical analysis, a course that is helpful for forensic toxicology, is one of four sub-plans from which students in this 120-credit degree can select. Molecular biology for forensic purposes, forensic investigations, and forensic wildlife biology are other specialties. The program can be finished in four years and has three start dates available throughout the year.
Step Two: Gain Real-World Experience (One to Two Years)
One of the best forms of education is on-the-job training, and the quickest way to advance in a career is to leave the classroom and enter the working world. When applying to graduate institutions, work experience is advantageous. However, it also expands a professional’s network and can help them decide whether to enroll in graduate school at all. The Society of Forensic Toxicologists has an up-to-date list of job openings across the nation for people with all levels of experience.
Step Three: Pursue Master’s, an Advanced Degree or Certificate (Two to Four Years, Optional)
Depending on your interests and desired professional path, you can enroll for a postgraduate program in toxicology or a specific discipline of toxicology after earning your undergraduate degree. Several post-graduate degrees in toxicology include:
- Forensic Science.
Students may already be employed as forensic toxicologists at this time, but there is still the possibility for advancement. A graduate degree or certificate would be the best opportunity for people who majored in a hard science field but lacked forensic training, or vice versa. Graduate-level training in forensic toxicology can also improve a person’s specific skill set, employment prospects, pay, and standing in the industry as a whole.
Online master’s degrees and graduate certificates in forensic toxicology are also available from the University of Florida.
A post-certificate bachelor’s in forensic investigation is available from Wayne State University. Criminalistics, forensic examination of firearms, ballistics, explosives, and basic forensic analysis are all covered in this 24-credit curriculum. For this curriculum to be completed, an internship with a medical law firm is necessary.
An online master’s degree program in pharmacology with a focus on toxicity is available from Michigan State University. The toxicology concentration calls for 31 credits in classes like cellular and molecular toxicology, academic & research integrity, and principles of drug-tissue interaction. Applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree in biological or chemical science with a major from an authorized university to be accepted into this program.
If a candidate has significant professional experience in the field of biomedical science, applicants with a minimum of three credits in chemistry and three credits in biology may be approved.
One option for a terminal degree is to seek a Ph.D. in toxicology through a program like the one at Colorado State University, which might result in employment as a respected expert in the field of research, business, government, or academia.
A Ph.D. in chemistry is available from the University at Albany, a State University of New York (SUNY) institution. This program requires its participants to complete coursework, do research, and teach. Physical organic chemistry, advanced physical chemistry, the theory and methods of biophysics and chemistry, and all three are required to be taken for a minimum of 60 credits.
Before starting doctorate study, applicants must be full-time students pursuing a master’s degree or its equivalent and enrolled in at least 12 courses for two semesters. The program’s forensic/analytical track has a strong research emphasis, and students who choose to pursue it are supervised by academics and required to do forensic chemistry-related research.
Step Four: Consider Professional Certification (Timeline Varies)
Although certification is not required to practice, it can help forensic toxicologists establish their expertise, earn more money, and find more employment options. There are four of these certificates offered by the American Board of Forensic Toxicologists (ABFT):
Forensic Toxicology Diplomate (D-ABFT-FT)
Forensic Alcohol Toxicology Diplomate (D-ABFT-FA)
Forensic Drug Toxicology Diplomate (D-ABFT-FD)
Forensic Toxicology Fellow (F-ABFT)
Candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree in natural science, like biology or chemistry, as well as three years of related professional experience, to pursue the diplomate certifications. A doctorate-level degree is required for the fellow qualification, along with at least three years of post-graduate professional experience. All certification candidates must also provide three professional character references. Finally, candidates who fulfill all prerequisites are qualified to sit for the test that results in formal certification.
FORENSIC TOXICOLOGY SALARY POTENTIAL
The pay of a forensic toxicologist varies according to their location, job title, specialty, and experience. Furthermore, due to different data sources and calculating techniques, exact numbers may differ even more.
The average forensic scientist’s pay was $61,334 per year. A single forensic toxicologist and a wide spectrum of forensic scientists participated in this survey. The polled forensic scientists had an average tenure of four to six years.
According to more detailed self-reported statistics from PayScale (2021), forensic toxicologists make an average yearly pay of $77,303, with the top ten percent earning close to $102,000.
Additionally, the 39 forensic toxicologists in Payscale’s data set ranged in experience from one to four years in the field.
Although forensic toxicology is not closely tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they do offer robust data on forensic science technicians, which can include forensic toxicology. According to the BLS, forensic science technicians made an average of $64,890 a year, with the top 10% earning $100,910 or more (BLS 2020). The Federal Executive branch laboratories were the most lucrative of the many employment settings for forensic science technicians, paying an average salary of $120,790 per year, well above the $64,770 average for employees of state and local governments.