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Also see our section on Ethical Considerations, covering topics such as environmental justice, ethical economics, the global e-waste trade, pesticide use in developing nations, and more!


Rapid advances in science and technology have produced enormous benefits but have also created undesirable hazardous side-effects that impact human health and the environment. The toxicological sciences strive to understand and evaluate the health and environmental effects of chemical and physical agents. The impact of this expanding body of science on society has grown enormously in the last 100 years, and with that have arisen corresponding financial, legal, and individual implications. Despite the increased scientific data and understanding, decision making has become more difficult and complex. It is thus increasingly important to consider the ethical, legal, and social issues that confront toxicologists, public health professionals, and decision makers.

The fundamental principles that an ethical toxicologist should consider can be summarized as: 1) dignity, which includes respect for the autonomy of human and animal subjects; 2) veracity, an adherence to transparency and presentation of all the facts so all parties can discover the truth; 3) justice, which includes an equitable distribution of the costs, hazards, and gains; 4) integrity, an honest and forthright approach; 5) responsibility, an acknowledgment of accountability to all parties involved; and 6) sustainability, consideration that actions can be maintained over a long period of time (Gilbert and Eaton, 2009).

Beyond these basic principles it is important to have a vision of environmental health that is grounded in ethical considerations.

Historical Perspective

Looking back, it is easy to see the beginnings of an ethical framework for decision making in the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BC), who studied the effects of food, occupation, and climate on causation of disease and is credited with the basic medical tenet of "do no harm." Bernardo Ramazzini (1633 - 1714), an Italian physician, examined the health hazards of chemicals, dust, metals, and other agents encountered by workers in 52 occupations, which he documented in his book De Morbis Artificum Diatriba (Diseases of Workers).

Aldo Leopold , considered by many to be America's first bioethicist, summarized ethical responsibilities in a simple statement in 1949. "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." It can be extrapolated from this ethical statement that exposing people, particularly children, to harmful agents robs them of their "integrity, stability, and beauty," indeed their potential, and is therefore wrong. Health, ecological, and ethical concerns about chemical exposures were highlighted by Rachel Carson (photo, left) in Silent Spring, first published in 1962. Carson sounded one of the first alarms about the effects of environmental contaminants and catalyzed numerous regulatory changes related to chemical use. Her writings include the following statements:
"It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks ... the public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road and it can only do so when in full possession of the facts..."
"Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species - man - acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world."

The next major book to capture public attention on this subject was Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peter Meyers, first published in 1996. This book focused on the reproductive and developmental effects of synthetic chemicals and raised awareness and concern about endocrine disruptors.

At the same time, there were ongoing efforts to define a more philosophical and ethical approach to managing the chemicals we have grown dependent upon. The idea for an Earth Charter was first proposed in 1987 as an approach to creating a broad ethical statement with the goal of establishing a global civil society. The Earth Charter took a step forward in 1992 at The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, also known as the Rio Summit or Rio Conference, which produced the 27 Principles of the Rio Declaration. Principle 15 defined the precautionary principle as an approach to protect human health and the environment. In January 1998, the Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle was held in Racine, Wisconsin to define the precautionary principle. (Photo of Wingspread House below.)
"When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

  • Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, January 1998

The Earth Charter was being developed during this period and was ultimately adopted by many countries, states, and organizations. Relevant to toxicologists is one the principles which states: "Prevent harm as the best method of environmental protection and, when knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach." The Precautionary Principle as a base for decisions is more readily accepted in Europe, but there are ongoing efforts in the United States to adopt a more precautionary approach in the management of chemicals.

Legal Issues

There is a wide range of laws and regulations that shape the role of toxicology in society. One of the first laws dealing with toxicology, passed in 82 BCE by the Roman Emperor Sulla, was intended to deter intentional poisonings because women were poisoning men to acquire their wealth. In 1880, food poisonings spurred Peter Collier, chief chemist, U.S. Department of Agriculture, to recommend passage of a national food and drug law. In 1938, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was adopted following an incident in which Elixir Sulfanilamide, containing the poisonous solvent diethylene glycol, killed 107 people, many of whom were children. The need to control chemical contamination was recognized in the 1976 when the U.S. Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to "prevent unreasonable risks of injury to health or the environment associated with the manufacture, processing, distribution in commerce, use, or disposal of chemical substances." TSCA became largely ineffective following court decisions and there is now an effort to pass chemical policy reform legislation. Mean while Europe has moved forward with REACH, Registration Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals, a system that requires testing and evaluation of chemicals before their introduction into commerce.

Social Considerations

Toxicologists and public health professionals play an important role in society in protecting and promoting public health. There has been an extra focus on ethical and social issues related to children's health. The U.S. Society of Toxicology code of ethics indicates that toxicologists should be thoughtful public health advocates. While seldom explicitly stated, professional codes of ethics such as those for SOT are often based on the following social responsibilities: 1) to share and use knowledge, 2) to promote the health and well being of children, and 3) to maintain the right of all species to reach and maintain their full potential.

Additional Ethical Considerations

A toxicologist is also concerned with issues of integrity and honesty in the conduct and interpretation of toxicological studies. It is important to examine and acknowledge conflicts of interest. Toxicology associations as well state and federal agencies, nonprofits, and universities have statements and guidelines on conflict of interest and disclosure. In addition, toxicologists must adhere to rules and regulations regarding the use of animals and humans in scientific studies. The conduct of studies involving humans has a rich history that has become increasingly well defined and regulated to ensure adequate knowledge and consent of subjects involved.


The purest of ethical behavior and decision making requires the thoughtful development and articulation of fundamental principles upon which to base any action. The ethical toxicologist must consider and integrate basic ethical principles into the decision making process. This approach moves beyond what is legally required: an ethical approach requires ongoing discussion and considerations as the toxicological sciences and society evolve. Toxicologists must not only be familiar with the rules and regulations regarding the ethical conduct of research, but also with the underlying ethical principles. The challenge is to move beyond a purely legal adherence to the rules but toward an ethical approach grounded in carefully considered and articulated ethical principles that drive the responsible conduct and application of research in modern societies.

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