Toxicology describes the fate of substances in - and their potentially harmful effect on - living organisms, with the aim of assessing the risks of exposure to these substances for humans, animals and the environment, and minimising any undesirable effects. Toxicology is an interdisciplinary field of study that is shared among the medical, biological and chemical fields of science, and comprises all chemical compounds (of a biological, mineral or synthetic origin).
Toxicology has a number of subspecialties, such as:
- Environmental or Ecotoxicology.
- Medical or Human Toxicology.
Generally speaking, forensic toxicology is regarded as an area of special interest within the subspecialty of Human or Medical Toxicology.
Forensic toxicology can also be defined as the specific study of the consequences of exposure to substances on behalf of the administration of the law in the widest sense.
For a forensic toxicologist it is extremely important that he/she has an overview of the entire specialist field of toxicology. A forensic toxicologist particularly has to have a command of the principles of clinical toxicology and their application to legal questions. Moreover, knowledge and experience in the field of bio-analytical chemistry is required.
Forensic toxicology is important in criminal and civil law cases -knowledge in the field of administrative and disciplinary law is also relevant- which relate to (a) victim(s) or perpetrator(s).
The core tasks of a forensic toxicologist include consultation on the question at issue, the examination plan, the choice of analysis and the interpretation of the laboratory results.
Key questions in this context are:
- In the event of an unnatural death: are foreign substances present, which may (partly) have contributed to the death?
- In the event of non-deceased victims: are foreign substances present and are these detrimental to the victim's health?
- Are substances present in the body (such as drugs, alcohol, medicines) and what effects can these have on behaviour?
Boundaries of the field of expertise
When reporting as an expert registered for the field of Forensic Toxicology, the expert should be aware of the possibilities and limitations of the techniques and/or specialisations. The expert should also be aware of the pros and cons of these techniques, specialisations and/or developments.
The field of expertise of Drugs comes under that of Toxicology to the extent that it concerns the biological fate of the substance(s) and their effects on human beings.
As regards the above issues for examination, the forensic toxicologist is the first point of contact, which means the forensic toxicologist must be aware that, from the perspective of specialist subareas (for example psychopharmacology), statements can also be made with respect to, for example:
- The relationship between concentrations of substances and certain effects (such as on behaviour).
- Possible effects of substances in general.
- The validity of bio-analytical investigation.
- The estimated degree of exposure.
And must be aware of his limitations compared to other areas of expertise.