What is toxicology?

The name toxicology is derived from the Greek word “TOXIKON“, which means an arrow. Modern toxicology is defined as a study on the adverse (toxic) effects of both chemical and physical agents on biological systems. An important goal of toxicology is the application of the discipline to safety evaluation and risk assessment.

According to Paracelsus (1493 – 1541) “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.” By sustainable use of chemicals the exposure of humans and environment is minimised and the harmful effects caused by chemicals are prohibited.

Toxicology has a broad scope. It deals with toxicity and mechanisms of toxicity of chemicals used in medicine for diagnostic, preventive and therapeutic purposes, in the food industry as direct and indirect additives, in agriculture as pesticides, growth regulators, artificial pollinators, and in the chemical industry as solvents, components, and intermediates of plastics and many other types of chemicals. It also concerned with the health effects of metals, petroleum products, wastes of paper and pulp industry, air pollutants, and animal and plant toxins. Risk assessment of deleterious of health effects induced by chemicals is a major enterprise in toxicology.

Many of the problems in toxicology require an integrative approach to problem solving. Therefore toxicologists utilise variety of approaches that span several sectors of science to obtain a comprehensive picture of the risks associated with chemicals under investigation. These sectors include e.g. human and animal anatomy and physiology, chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, biology and social sciences. A collaboration between experts of different sectors is crucial to gain a comprehensive picture of the risks induced by chemicals. In addition it is important to be able to communicate the risks identified in an understandable, clear manner. Broad know-how and comprehensive ability to understand the full picture is required for the successful toxicological risk assessment, in the communication of the conclusions and in the decision making process.

Toxicology is divided to multiple special expertise areas such as regulatory, mechanistical or descriptive toxicology. On the other hand the areas can be specified according to the functions such as clinical toxicology, ecotoxicology, forensic toxicology or occupational toxicology. All these sectors of toxicology aim to make the world safer place for living.

Photo: Saara Sivonen / Tukes kuvapankki