What is Forensic Toxicology?

Toxicology is the study of the adverse effects of drugs, poisons, and other chemicals on biological systems. Forensic toxicology is the application of toxicology to issues and cases where those adverse effects may have medico-legal consequences, with results used in court. The forensic toxicologist employs the disciplines of toxicology, analytical chemistry and pharmacology to detect, quantify, and interpret drug findings in a wide variety of biological specimens. The specific role of the forensic toxicologist varies slightly depending on the specific discipline, detailed below.

Death Investigation Toxicology (Postmortem Toxicology): The forensic toxicologist works with a medical examiner or coroner to determine the contribution of alcohol, drugs, and poisons in the cause of death. Drug identification and quantification are typically performed in blood, urine, or tissue samples. The forensic toxicologist's interpretation of these results helps with the medical examiner's or coroner's determination of the cause and manner of death.

Human Performance Toxicology: The forensic toxicologist investigates the effects of drugs and alcohol on human performance and behavior, and the legal consequences of drug use. Examples of human performance investigations include impaired driving, vehicular assault and homicide, and drug-facilitated crimes. The forensic toxicologist detects and quantifies drugs and alcohol primarily in blood and urine, but alternative matrices like oral fluid and hair are increasingly employed. The interpretation of these drug results should help answer questions about the extent, timing and potentially impairing effects of drug use.

Doping Control: There are many rules governing performance enhancing drug use in sports; these rules are set to protect the health and welfare of athletes, maintain fair competitions, and avoid wagering fraud. Periodic off-season and random on-season drug testing are required for enforcing these rules. The forensic toxicologist tests biological specimens for the presence of stimulants, anabolic steroids, diuretics, and other substances on banned substance lists.

Forensic Workplace Drug Testing: The forensic toxicologist helps test biological samples, typically urine, for prohibited drugs during pre-employment, random, or for-cause drug testing. Samples can come from the general workforce, United States federal employees and contractors, and the U.S. military. Most workplace drug testing is performed in private laboratories, except for the U.S. military.

Additional information can be found in The Forensic Toxicology Council's Briefing: What is Forensic Toxicology?

Interested in a career in forensic toxicology? Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) offers a list of accredited undergraduate and graduate forensic programs.