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Forensic Toxicologist

OverviewAcademic RequirementsResources

If you are fascinated by the effects chemicals can have on the human body, this may be the career for
you. Forensic toxicologists perform scientific tests on bodily fluids and tissue samples to identify any
drugs or chemicals present in the body.
As part of a team investigating a crime, a forensic toxicologist will isolate and identify any substances
in the body that may have contributed to the crime, such as:


Illegal or prescription drugs

Other chemicals



Gases, such as carbon monoxide

Working in a lab, the forensic toxicologist performs tests on samples collected by forensic pathologists
during an autopsy or by crime scene investigators. They use highly sophisticated instruments,
chemical reagents and precise methodologies to determine the presence or absence of specific
substances in the sample.
The work requires patience and the ability to follow specific steps to achieve reliable results. The
forensic toxicologist must document every step of the process and take care to follow rules regarding
chain of custody for physical evidence.
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 and testing
for date rape drugs and performance-enhancing substances.
Forensic toxicologists also work on cases involving environmental contamination, to determine the
impact of chemical spills on nearby populations.
Investigators rely on the forensic toxicologist to make reliable conclusions about the impact a specific
amount of a specific substance would have on a specific individual. Often, this requires the
professional to form an educated opinion based on science and experience.
If asked to testify in court, the forensic toxicologist must be prepared to justify that opinion and to
explain complex methodologies in terms a jury can understand.
This career profile was reviewed and approved by Max Houck, M.A., Director, Forensic Science
Initiative, West Virginia University.

Working Conditions
Most forensic toxicologists work in labs run by law enforcement agencies, medical examiners or private
drug testing facilities. They often must sit or stand for long periods of time. The tests they perform
require very fine motor skills and a dogged commitment to following rigorous scientific protocols.
Working with bodily fluids and tissue samples can be messy and smelly. The forensic toxicologist is also
exposed to details about crimes, which can be emotionally difficult.
The workload can be significant, and when the samples come from a crime scene, the pressure to
perform tests faster can be strong. The forensic toxicologist must be able to resist this pressure, work
efficiently without rushing and prioritize effectively

Cyanide toxicity is generally considered to be a rare form of poisoning. However, cyanide exposure occurs
relatively frequently in patients with smoke inhalation from residential or industrial fires. In addition, intensive
treatment with sodium nitroprusside or long-term consumption of cyanide-containing foods is a possible source
of cyanide poisoning. Historically, cyanide has been used as a chemical warfare agent, and it could potentially
be an agent for a terrorist attack.[1, 2]
Cyanide exists in gaseous, liquid, and solid forms. Hydrogen cyanide (HCN, also known as prussic acid) is a
volatile liquid that boils at 25.6 C (78.1 F). Potassium and sodium cyanide salts are water soluble; mercury,
copper, gold, and silver cyanide salts are poorly water soluble.
In addition, a number of cyanide-containing compounds, known as cyanogens, may release cyanide during
metabolism. These include, but are not limited to, cyanogen chloride and cyanogen bromide (gases with potent
pulmonary irritant effects), nitriles (R-CN), and the vasodilator nitroprusside sodium, which may produce
iatrogenic cyanide poisoning during prolonged or high-dose intravenous (IV) therapy (>10 mcg/kg/min). (See
Industry widely uses nitriles as solvents and in the manufacturing of plastics. Nitriles may release HCN during
burning or when metabolized after absorption by the skin or gastrointestinal tract. A number of synthesized and
natural compounds produce HCN when burned. These combustion gases likely contribute to the morbidity and
mortality from smoke inhalation. Finally, long-term consumption of cyanide-containing foods, such as cassava
root or apricot seeds,[3] may lead to cyanide poisoning.
Depending on its form, cyanide may cause toxicity through inhalation, ingestion, dermal absorption, or
parenteral administration. Clinical manifestations vary widely, depending on the dose and route of exposure,
and may range from minor upper airway irritation to cardiovascular collapse and death within minutes.
(See Clinical Presentation.) In severe cases, rapid, aggressive therapy consisting of supportive care and
antidote administration can be lifesaving. (See Treatment andMedication.)

Cyanide as a chemical weapon

HCN (North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] designation AC) is one of two cyanide chemical warfare
agents[4, 5, 6] ; the other is cyanogen chloride (NATO designation CK). Cyanide is a rapidly lethal agent when used
in enclosed spaces where high concentrations can be achieved easily.[7, 8, 9, 10] In addition, because of the
extensive use of cyanide in industry in the United States, this agent presents a credible threat for terrorist use. [5]
Cyanide was first used as a chemical weapon in the form of gaseous HCN in World War I. Starting in 1915, the
French military used approximately 4000 tons of cyanide, without notable success. The failure of this measure
was probably attributable to the high volatility of cyanide and the inability of the 1- to 2-lb munitions used to
deliver the amounts of chemical required for biologic effects.[5, 6]
The introduction of cyanogen chloride by the French in 1916 made available a compound that, being both more
toxic and less volatile, was a more effective chemical agent. Other alleged military uses of cyanide include
Japanese attacks on China before and during World War II and Iraqi attacks on Kurds in the 1980s.