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  Toxicology (Greek, ‘study of poisons’), in the life sciences, is the study of the harmful effects of substances upon biological systems. The techniques of toxicology have much in common with pharmacology when the poison concerned is of chemical origin. Biological poisons (toxins and venoms) may also act as drugs, but are usually also antigenic they are bound by specific antibodies and can be sequestered within the body by the immune system. This is how antisera against poisons such as snake venom work. Toxicology involves the isolation of the agent and the elucidation of its mechanism of action. Generally, precautions can be taken to protect against exposure in the environment, as has been the case since it was discovered that asbestos was toxic. The toxicologist is also concerned with finding a treatment and an antidote for specific poisons; often it may be noted that the harmful effects could be of use in a different context. The paralytic poison curare, for example, is used in the production of poison darts by South American indians, but it also has important medical uses.

Where man develops poisons for use in pest control, it has been realized that great care must be taken to ensure that species beneficial to man are not harmed at the same time. Historically, a knowledge of poisons dates back to the first discovery that certain potential foods were best avoided. From this grew the arts of using known poisons for suicide and murder, and the detection of their use; though these sciences became highly advanced because of the rewards which were available to experts, it was not until the early 19th century that the effects of poisons on animals were systematically studied: Matthieu Orifila pioneered this field with experiments using dogs to investigate the effect of poisons in various quantities. RB

See also immunology; pharmacology; teratology.



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