What’s environmental toxicology?

It is the study of the harmful effects of substances on humans and other organisms in the environment.

To understand this properly, let us ponder over the following.

What’s a harmful effect? Anything that causes an organism to die, stops or delays their development or growth, changes their behavior… you get it. It can make organisms not function properly or reduce their ability to deal with stresses like extreme temperatures, less food, infections, etc.

What is a toxic substance? Pretty much everything and anything! Because, as Paracelsus said, it is the dose (quantity) that makes the poison. Almost everything is poisonous and almost everything is safe (one rare exception is lead – there is believed to be no safe dose).

The most toxic substance on earth, the bacteria-produced botulinum toxin, can kill humans at a dose of 0.0000001 grams (or 0.0000000035 ounces), if injected. However, it is used in Botox. On the other hand, it takes 6 kilograms/6 liters (or 13 pounds/1.6 gallons) of water (consumed all at once) to kill a person.

Figure 1: Paracelsus is considered the Father of Toxicology {{PD-old}}

How do we know which substances are very toxic and which aren’t? Scientists look at how much of the substance is needed to cause a harmful effect. In the above example, very little of botulinum toxin can kill a human. So it is classified as a highly toxic substance. Since it takes a lot of water to kill a human, it is classified as a very lowly toxic substance. But what amount does it take to decide this?

Let’s do an experiment, as scientists often do. Let’s feed a substance to a population of guinea pigs (each weighing 1 kg or 2.2 lbs) until half of them die. The substance’s toxicity can be classified based on the amount it took to kill half the guinea pigs.

Highly toxic Moderately toxic Lowly toxic Very lowly toxic
0-50 mg

(0-0.002 oz)

50-500 mg

(0.002-0.02 oz)

500-5000 mg

(0.02-0.2 oz)

More than 5000 mg (more than 0.2 oz)

Since humans weigh around 70 times more than guinea pigs, we can roughly multiply all the numbers by 70 (notice change in units).

Highly toxic Moderately toxic Lowly toxic Very lowly toxic
0-3.5 g

(0-0.008 lb)

3.5-35 g

(0.008-0.08 lb)

35-350 g

(0.08-0.8 lb)

More than 350 g (more than 0.8 lb)

Body weights matter in toxicology. This is why medicine prescriptions often state that children should take a smaller dose.

Does a larger dose always cause more harm than a smaller dose? Mostly, yes. Larger the dose = larger the harmful effect. This is called a dose-response relationship (see Figure 2). But this doesn’t hold true for chemicals that are essential for survival. Low doses of vitamins (or oxygen, water, etc.) are bad for health, and so are high doses. There is an optimal range of vitamin (/essential chemical) doses that are safe — too low a dose causes deficiency and death and too high a dose causes toxicity and death (see Figure 3). Yikes!

Figure 2: A standard dose-response relation. With increase in dose of chemical, there is an increase in response
PNG image
Figure 3: A non-standard dose-response relation. The very low and very high doses cause a harmful response

Is dose the only thing that matters? No, we need exposure too. You won’t be harmed by a substance if you don’t encounter it. For example, you shouldn’t worry too much about oil spills in the ocean harming you or your cat. And, if you or your cat were exposed to a chemical, remember that the dose you were exposed to matters.

Are man-made substances more toxic? Probably not, given that the five most toxic substances on earth are naturally produced.

Who is most likely to be harmed? Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly if you have thought it through), humans are probably one of the most vulnerable species. As we are rarely restricted by geography or season, we can be exposed to many substances. But we can also take measures to avoid exposure. Species with low population numbers or that are ineffective at breaking down and excreting chemicals are probably worse off.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s