Environmental Toxicology

Last updated: October 27, 2019

What Does Environmental Toxicology Mean?

Environmental toxicology is a field of science that is concerned with the effects of biological, physical, and chemical hazards on living organisms.

This includes, for example, the impact of agricultural pesticides on animals and humans who are exposed to sprayed vegetation either in-field or after harvesting.

Safeopedia Explains Environmental Toxicology

Environmental toxicology is closely related to the field of occupational toxicology, as many environmental toxins are produced as the result of industrial activity such as certain process manufacturing industries and energy production activity. Within this context, environmental toxicology is relevant to occupational safety as it relates to the health of the environment that workers operate in, as well as how it affects the environment that workers live in outside of work.

The field of environmental toxicology became recognized through the work of American biologist Rachel Carson—most notably her 1962 book "Silent Spring," which chronicled the effects of DDT pesticide use on organisms, including human life. Many subsequent large environmental toxicology issues dealt directly with matters of occupational health. For instance, the spraying of Agent Orange by the U.S. military has resulted in negative long-term health effects in many members of the military who were exposed to the chemical. The long-term health effects of occupational catastrophes, such as the Chernobyl incident, are also of interest to environmental toxicologists.

Environmental toxicology also intersects with occupational toxicology through the investigation of the potential impact of cumulative negative impacts on health and safety from exposure to harmful toxins. The occupational exposure limits set by OSHA and other occupational health and safety organizations presume that workers are healthy and do not account for the exposures to other substances that may make workers more vulnerable to harmful substances found in the workplace. However, workers may be exposed to industrial or agricultural pollutants that have entered the wider environment as hazardous contaminants.

Investigation into worker exposure that occurs may provide a fuller image of the worker’s life that illustrates unsafe levels of exposure when the totality of living environments—residence and workplace—are considered. Within this context, the scope of hazards considered by environmental toxicologists can be understood as being wider than that of an occupational toxicologist, whose focus is specifically on understanding the hazards and exposures that occur within a given workplace.


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