Ecotoxicologist


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 glance

Imagine 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 duties

Duties 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 environment

Ecotoxicologists 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
In the office:
  • 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
In the field:
  • 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 work

There 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 & requirements

If you are a high school student considering a career as an ecotoxicologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • English
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as an ecotoxicologist is a university undergraduate degree, though the majority of positions are in research and require graduate studies.If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an ecotoxicologist, the following programs are most applicable:
  • Toxicology
  • Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Ecology
  • Microbiology
Certification is not mandatory for ecotoxicologists, but many practitioners choose to belong to professional associations such as their provincial association for professional biologists.

Role Model

Angela Li-Muller

What does Angela Li-Muller like about her job in toxicology? "I enjoy learning more about environmental problems and working with other experts on solutions."Angela works for the City of Toronto. Her search for information on toxic substances in the environment is carefully plotted. "First I try to find out if some substances are harmful. Then, I try to find out how much of these substances are in the environment. Thirdly, I try to find out how much of these substances in the environment actually reach body tissues. Based on all this information, I try to determine if what is present in the environment is safe for people."Is there anything she doesn't like about her job? "I find it difficult when people are unwilling to accept my findings because the conclusions do not fit with their belief. Sometimes there is resistance to bad news, and sometimes people just don't want believe that there is a problem."Angela's career preparation included a bachelor's and a master's degree in chemistry. Her master's degree had an emphasis on environmental toxicology. Angela completed her academic preparation when she received a Ph.D. with a toxicology focus from the University of Guelph.