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A Guide to Forensic Toxicology



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We understand that forensic science has historically been used in the courts and other public forums, mostly in the interests of justice and the law. Any science that is used in the courts is classified as a forensic science. There may be other forums, arguments and debates where forensic science is used, but we are most familiar with the judicial and legal sense.

Toxicology is one of the fields of forensics, where specialization of research and exploration of the harmful or toxic effects of substances on the human or animal body is done. When the legal and medical aspects of such research and investigation are combined, then the activity is classified as forensic toxicology.

Forensic toxicologists, work as part of the triad of criminal and civil resolution: Investigation, pathology, and toxicology. They can work with a wide variety of individuals, including detectives, crime scene investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and other government officials. Forensic toxicologists may rest at various levels in police and law enforcement hierarchies, and report to differing chains of command. They may be required to testify in court and be prepared for rigorous questioning as well as cross examination

Forensic toxicologists assist with accident, criminal and death examinations by testing and examining the bodily fluids and tissue samples, and then helping to arrive at interpretations of the results in order to determine if toxic substances were the cause of death, or to confirm or deny the presence of drugs, alcohol, or other substances within the body, or to conduct more advanced investigations into odd or unusual situations where accidental or freak chemical reactions or exposures occur. In civil situations, private forensic toxicology labs are retained for corporate drug testing, and even for private individual drug testing.

A knowledge of chemistry and pharmacology, along with a curious and disciplined scientific mind that can use qualitative and quantitative methodology is the core of education and training for the forensic toxicologist. Knowledge of complex and advanced equipment along with the exacting procedures that are used to analyze gasses, to assay antibodies, and to examine substances is required.

In addition to the pure science of forensic toxicology, forensic toxicologists might be ordered to appear in court with the goal of supporting the prosecution with facts that support a guilty verdict or which enhance the case in a tort or civil matter. In a competing aspect, a well financed defendant in a civil or criminal case may hire a private forensic toxicologist to refute the accusations of guilt and to prove innocence. In the middle of such competing demands, lies the ethical, professional, legal and reputational standing of the scientist, who must seek and report the truth, no matter which side benefits. In that respect, it can be a tricky matter to involve a toxicological finding that is reported under rigorous argument, and questioning and cross examination by both sides in a matter, and it can be a tricky proposition for the lab bound toxicologist.

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