Explore environmental careers.
As an ecotoxicologist, you specialize in toxicology that studies the harmful effects of chemical, biological, and physical agents on living organisms, including humans. You draw on a variety of scientific disciplines to predict, measure, and explain the frequency and severity of adverse effects of environmental toxins on living organisms. Your work improves environmental protection through a better understanding of the hazards and risks to which organisms are exposed.
At a glanceImagine you are kneeling on the bank of a cold glacier-fed stream with your arm in the water taking a grab sample. You are an ecotoxicologist and you are taking samples of the creek because there is concern that a potentially harmful chemical has polluted the water. Biologists studying fish downstream have noticed the fish population is almost entirely mature adults, with very few young fish. The absence of younger fish indicates that the population is not reproducing, which indicates some form of toxicant in the water. You have been asked to investigate the situation, determine a cause, and find a way to reverse the effects. As an ecotoxicologist, you must find out why the creek's fish have stopped reproducing and if something can be done about it. The first step toward finding these answers is to visit the site itself, both to gather water samples and to see if there is obvious evidence of the cause in the surrounding environment, for example dumped chemical containers or a spill site. Even when the cause seems apparent, you must investigate a little deeper. You will bring the water samples to the lab for analysis, to get a better idea of the different chemicals present in the water. From the list of chemicals, you will look at each one to see if it is responsible for stopping reproduction. But you aren't finished once you have found the culprit or culprits; you will also study the mechanism by which the contaminant acts on the fish, which will be the key to reversing its effects. It is also important that you find the source of the toxicant so you can prevent similar incidences in the future. It's a big task, but your specialty is answering the questions of what, how, and where disturbances are in the ecosystem.
Job dutiesDuties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an ecotoxicologist:
- Take samples of water, soil, sediment, animals, and plants in their environment to measure their health, determine exposure levels where necessary, and assess any changes due to particular sources of pollution.
- Conduct chemical and toxicological laboratory assessments on individual substances or contaminant mixtures in water, sediment, and soil to determine their effects on animals, plants, and human tissue.
- Conduct research to develop new toxicological tests to assess environmental situations.
- Evaluate potential risks based on concentration of toxicants and periods of exposure.
- Develop standards or guidelines for safe levels of chemical, biological, and physical agents in the air, soil, sediment, or water, for example environmental quality criteria.
- Provide advice and scientific information to policy and program developers concerning environmental and human health and legal aspects of chemical use.
- Interact with regulators, industry, and communities to better understand environments and people being affected by pollutants, explore commonalities of concern and approach, and agree on ways to collectively deal with these issues.
Work environmentEcotoxicologists work in a variety of locations, including, but not limited to: In the lab:
- Testing samples and conducting toxicity experiments
- Culturing organisms
- Designing experimental protocols
- Calibrating and maintaining instruments
- Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
- Researching literature and preparing reports and scientific papers
- Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, stakeholders, the general public, government departments, colleagues, and other scientists
- Presenting study results and findings and developing solutions to problems
- Researching new technology and advancements in ecotoxicology, and consulting with other toxicology professionals
- Collecting samples
- Conducting toxicity investigations and experiments on solid, liquid, and air emission waste streams
- Researching sources of contamination and pollution
- Responding to emergency situations and contributing to clean-up and recovery efforts
Where to workThere are a number of places ecotoxicologists can find employment. They include:
- Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
- Colleges, universities, and research institutes
- Biotechnology firms
- Environmental consulting firms
- Firms in other industries, for example mining, forestry, and chemical production
- Non-governmental organizations
Education & requirementsIf you are a high school student considering a career as an ecotoxicologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in: