All things toxic

There’s not a lot of humor in the toxicology field.   It’s pretty serious stuff: testing urine, oral fluids, blood, hair, fingernails and even meconium using analytical instrumentation (chromatography and mass spectrometry) to measure levels and types of drugs in the individual.  Toxicology deals with the complexities of testing and analysis, of positives and false positives, of screening amd confirmations, the effects of drugs of abuse on the brain, and the effect on newborns, children, adolescents, and pregnant women too.  Not funny subjects.

It deals with overdoses, postmortem studies, near-death toxicity caused by opioids and/or designer drugs.  Road rage by intoxicated drivers.  Therapeutic drug monitoring and diversion. The opioid crisis.  And then there are all the lawsuits and investigations of tox labs gone bad: kickbacks to physicians, false billing to Medicaid in the millions of dollars, and the lawsuits between addiction centers and sober houses, and the toxicology labs hired to test them.  Pretty sober subject matter.  The buck stops at the lab.

That’s why I really enjoyed a creative HELP WANTED advertisement that was posted on the Society of Forensic Toxicology (SOFT) website a few years ago:

HELP WANTED: in search of friendly people who enjoy meeting other friendly people. Must be in Atlanta during the SOFT conference (October 18-23, 2015) with an interest in all things toxic. Duties could include learning names at a workshop registration table; impersonating Vanna White with SOFT meeting signs, or starting a bidding war at the Silent Auction. If this sounds like your cup of poison, please click the link: and fill out the form to see how you can join the fun (better known as volunteering at the SOFT conference). We have a volunteer position to fit your schedule. No experiences necessary.

The Society of Forensic Toxicology or SOFT is just one of many laboratory trade organizations. The annual SOFT show is a week’s worth of poster sessions, working groups, scientific presentations, demos and the like focused on drugs of abuse and addiction studies, clinical and forensic toxicology news, trends and advancements, and other analytical toxicology matters of interest to PhD chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacy lab executives and scientists. ToxTalk is a periodical produced by its members and covers fascinating analyses of both common and trendy drugs and toxins, from coffee (and its caffeine) to khat, Ecstacy and fentanyl-laced opioids. I can understand some of it though most of it is way over my head.  I learn enough so I can ask good questions to lab managers and academics (in my day job), or impress my friends and influence people with knowledge of such timely topics.

Chemistry describes how things are: fuels, agriculture, fabrics, medicines, minerals, air, water, soil and more.  Chemistry is all about the nature of things and the transformations of it into something else. It’s quantum mechanics thst explains the structure of atoms and molecules, but it’s thermodynamics that is the energy that makes chemistry chemistry.  Nothing happens in chemistry without energy.  Peter Atkins, a chemist himself, writes in What is Chemistry? :

“Whereas chemistry reaches down into physics for its explanations (and through physics further down into mathematics for its quantitative formulations), it reaches upwards into biology for many of its most extraordinary applications. That should not be surprising, for biology is merely an elaboration of chemistry”.

Why is the sky blue?

Many years ago when I was in college earning a BA, a Hampshire College friend took an introductory science class called “Why is the sky blue?” And I recall at Brown University there was a class known as “Physics for Poets” that addressed what I will call “science appreciation”.  Who couldn’t be fascinated by the life-altering, bold, important and fascinating scientific inventions, breakthroughs and advancements produced through scientific research and development?  Be it mapping the body (Human Genome Project), pasteurization of milk to kill bacteria, climate change forecasts,  the invention of the first practical integrated circuit (also known as the “microchip”) or engineering microbes through synthetic biology, I’ve grown to appreciate how science touches society, culture, politics, economics, transportation, health, communications, community and weather.

I am attracted to science without being a scientist or possessing a scientific mind, but how would I have known that upon graduation in 1975, I would spend the next four decades working in technology and sciences-based firms, and being continually fascinated by the applications, the before and after outcomes resulting from scientific advances and achievements.  It’s not funny, but it’s better.





Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

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