The main tasks the forensic toxicologist has to perform are identifying, characterizing and putting in context any types of drugs or chemicals found in a human body (or at a crime scene) during an investigation, based on scientific tests of bodily fluids and tissue samples.
Forensic Toxicology – What it Does
The forensic toxicologist will firstly (but not exclusively) look for prescription or illegal drugs, alcohol, poisons, metals, gases such as carbon monoxide – as these are the substances most often associated with cases. However, not paying attention to the slightest particularities that ensure from the tests may lead to and inefficient and inaccurate investigation result. You have to increase your odds of getting good results fast so naturally you search for the common substances – but not looking for anything else is a potentially vital mistake.
The jobs involve a lot of chemistry, but also require solid knowledge in distribution rates, absorption rates and other specifications of toxic substances interacting with the human body. The chemistry techniques combine with the pharmacology knowledge in analyzing the types and contributions of substances that have been ingested by the subject of the investigation, as well as the relationship between them, since two separate substances may be harmless while in combination they can even cause death in some cases, doses etc.
The equipment in the laboratories is most often highly developed, the usage of instruments require precise methodologies and following some patterns while working with chemical reagents, not excluding any possible option at the same time. It’s often a tedious, but highly necessary job.
The custody for physical evidence is another thing yet to be taken into consideration whenever performing such a forensic investigation, reason for which the technicalities that have to be followed and respected may even get to seem overwhelming for a beginner in the field.
The responsibilities of a forensic toxicologist
Responsibility depends on the toxicologist’s level of involvement in the lab. The typical classification of the lab workers vary from assistant, supervisor, analyst to director/manager, while another specific domain is research (development scientists are given very few cases to solve and are usually only taking responsibility for the private companies’ research results rather for the investigations per se, since they are not properly working in the field, but for it).
Under this general classification, there are some types of obligations the employee binds himself to respect and accomplish, as it follows:
- taking care of the evidence received in the laboratory, on the purpose of detecting all the possible chemicals or controlled substances in the body, as well as poisons and prescribed drugs in different quantities. The legal chain of custody for the evidence he is responsible for has to be maintained, as well as reported to the superiors whenever it is necessary, according to the particular policies of the departments, companies or institutions in charge with the case solving.
- evaluating the evidence given to be analyzed accordingly, starting with the determination of a perfect dosage for scientific examination, in order for the analysis to be highly representative for the entire tissue or organism. Some of the steps include performing analysis on distinct specimens from blood, to urine, liver and other specimen patterns. Part of the analytic procedures here include Gas Chromatology (GC), Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS), Liquid Cromatography – Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS) or High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). All these have to be performed according to the standardized forensic toxicology procedures, forensic chemistry and pharmacology procedures.
- recording the data and interpreting the findings is also very important and part of the job. For most of the jobs, the preparation of the legal reports presenting the results of the analysis performed is an attribution of the forensic toxicologist as well. The scientific records of the analysis performed have to remain in the archive of the institution the forensic specialist works for. Depending on the policy of the lab, sometimes one of the tasks may include supervising the proper usage and functioning of the lab equipment.
- other specific attributions can include testifying in court (which, at its turn, includes explaining the scientific conclusions of the reports in a common way so that it can be understood and taken into consideration as valid, instead of being accused of specific knowledge), assisting medical examiners in some of the examinations as well as explaining the procedures to the new trainees.
How to become a forensic toxicologist
The qualifications needed to become a forensic toxicologist include a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, pharmacology or biology (other specializations may be accepted as qualified in some states according to the national specific laws and conditions, but they’re not recommended). Some of the positions require a master or even a PhD in forensic toxicology, while any of these specializations has to be accredited by the only institution in the United States of America qualified to certify the diplomas, .
Another very important qualification besides the theoretical background obtained during the years of study is practice. In order to be hired as an assistant in a forensic toxicology laboratory performing such investigations a minimum of three years of experience in the field is required. At its turn, this working period has to be accredited by the Forensic Toxicologist Certification Board. The three main branches that a young assistant can specialize in are Certified Forensic Alcohol Toxicologist, Certified Forensic Toxicologist and Certified Forensic Drug Toxicologist.
Forensic toxicologist salary
Concerning the salaries in the field, the starting payment rate for an assistant will rarely be over $60, 000 in the United States of America, while a more experienced forensic toxicologist can easily get to be paid over $100, 000 a year. The work is mostly sedentary, since the forensic toxicologists rarely get to visit the crime scene and more often get to work only from the laboratory with the samples provided by the other departments. The job can also prove to be highly stressful, especially during multiple investigations happening concomitant.