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Environmental Toxicology

Environmental Toxicology is an interdisciplinary science that deals with the study of chemicals in the environment, their mechanisms of action, and their potentially harmful effects on living organisms and natural ecosystems. Chemicals used in agriculture, industry, and the home enter the environment as a consequence of either their primary use, the improper treatment and disposal of industrial waste, or accidents that occur in production and transportation.

The work of environmental toxicologists includes assessing the effects of chemicals both in the laboratory to predict their possible hazards to humans and in the environment on target organisms and ecosystems. Toxicologists also study the fate and persistence of chemicals in the environment and seek to develop methods for remediation of environmental contamination.

Environmental toxicology is directly concerned with questions regarding the fate and effects of chemicals that have become part of our daily lives. For instance:

  • How do substances in our diets inhibit or promote cancer?
  • What are the hazards from prenatal exposure to natural and synthetic chemicals?
  • What mechanisms are responsible for the resistance or susceptibility of organisms to toxicants and drugs, and how can this knowledge be used effectively in agriculture and medicine.
  • How does genetic variation affect the susceptibility of individuals to different toxicants?
  • What happens to a chemical when it is released into the environment to circulate in soil, water and the food chain?
  • What are the most effective tests to determine the safety of environmental chemicals and therapeutic agents?
  • How do toxicants affect metabolism and nutrition in different plants, insects, and animals?

The answers to such questions require detailed scientific studies that are critical to weighing the benefits and risks of chemicals, their usefulness, and the tolerable level of exposure. Life as we know and value it today would not be possible without the use of numerous chemicals that were either unknown or not yet imagined a generation ago.

Because people depend increasingly on an expanding array of chemical products, there is mounting concern about the risks associated with the chemicals encountered in our daily lives. One task of environmental toxicologists is to provide decision makers and the public with the best possible scientific information on the nature and magnitude of such risks. To do this, they must bring together the best available information from diverse sources to establish what is known about a given risk, what needs to be learned, and what remains uncertain. Contemporary environmental toxicologists are trained with specializations in biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, chemistry or molecular biology. Cornell’s graduate program in environmental toxicology provides in-depth training in such disciplines within the broad context of toxicology.