Toxins are poisons produced within living cells or organs of plants, animals, and bacteria. Toxicants are synthetic, human-made, toxic chemicals. The difference is not merely one of semantics.
Until the late 19th century, nearly all toxic substances were called toxins, and they were normally made up of animal positions and naturally occurring minerals such as arsenic. But by the 1930s and 40s, a new term came to describe chemical-biological harm and its relations with living systems. The term “toxicant” replaced “toxin” in descriptions of pesticides in scientific literature (Ebling, 1940) as well as patents (Canadian Patent Office, 1935). Toxicant became the term of art for all human- and industrially- manufactured “poisons.”
Toxicants are remarkably different from toxins not only because of their synthetic origins, but also because of their mass tonnage, wide economic production and distribution processes, compositional heterogeneity, and increasingly ubiquity in homes, bodies, and environments. These traits were remarked upon as early as the 1930s (Kallet & Schlink 1933), and have only intensified since that time. Since that time, we have also come to realize that some toxicants, such as those listed in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) including DDT, dioxins, and PCBs, are so long-lived that they will outlast the human species. POPs can cause harm for their entire life cycle.
These differences between toxins and toxicants is not a matter of degree, but of kind. They are two different kinds of things. Even mineral that occur underground like arsenic or are produced by plankton such as methyl mercury, which might have been classified as toxins once upon a time, are now created at unprecedented scales and intensities via mining, dams, and other industrial processes that they are firmly in the domain of toxicants. The large-scale mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan, or Grassy Narrows, Canada are impossible for naturally occurring toxins.
Furthermore, toxins and toxicants can cause biochemical harm differently. Toxins like hometowns in snakes destroy red blood cells. Necrotoxins like those produced in bacteria destroy cells in tissues. While there are many types of toxins, they tend to work by destroying or disrupting regular cell activity. Toxicants, on the other hand, often make things work different than they normally would. Carcinogens like asbestos make cells multiply differently and cause cancer. Endocrine disrupting compounds like Bisphenol A interact with the hormone system and can cause early puberty, heart disease, infertility, and obesity (UNEP 2012). Rather than breaking or destroying bodily processes, many toxicants make then work differently, often to detrimental effect.
Crucially, you can’t use the politics of toxins to deal with toxicants. Toxins are dealt with via antidotes, building up immunity, or avoidance (Vaksberg 2011). But toxicants exist at massive scales and are tied up with everyday economic, industrial, and regulatory systems. For example, Toxic by Design, investigates how flaws in Canada’s regulatory approach to toxic flame retardants results in these chemicals being present in all bodies tested in Canada (EDAction 2016). The report shows that though the “manufacture, sale, import, and reuse [of PCBs, a toxic flame retardant,] have been prohibited in Canada since 1977, there are regulatory exceptions that allow PCBs to continue to be used. Today they remain in aging infrastructures and buildings, continuously creating new exposures. PCBs have become legacy chemicals, and contemporary global monitoring studies have failed to find a person alive that does not have PCBs in their blood, despite their ban decades ago” (2016), and goes on to argue that regulatory systems are built to allow this to occur, rather than prevent it. This is just one example of the complicated systems that toxicants are part of. It means that actions that aim to mitigate or eliminate the effects of toxicants have to account for these systems and the power dynamics that keep them in place.
When we accidentally call toxicants “toxins,” we are also accidentally naturalizing and depoliticizing industrially-produced chemicals and their politics. It’s akin to the movement by the petrochemical industry to prefer the term “marine debris” to “plastic pollution,” since the former sounds more like drift wood and includes glass and other waste, while the latter addresses the most ecologically damaging type of marine debris—plastics. When we talk about toxicants, we also need to talk about their complex economic, industrial, and regulatory natures rather than isolate them as if they are just wayward molecules. This is particularly important for researchers, activists, policy makers, and educators, since it’s our jobs to attend to not only the molecules, but also the structures that make those molecules exist the ways that they do.
Canadian Patent Office. 1935. The Canadian Patent Office Record and Register of Copyrights and Trade Marks, 63(5-8): 1367-8.
Ebeling, W. (1940). Toxicants and Solids added to Spray Oil in Control of California Red Scale. Journal of Economic Entomology, 33(1).
EDAction. (2016). Toxic By Design. White paper. Endocrine Disruption Action Group. Available: https://endocrinedisruptorsaction.org/2016/10/11/toxic-by-design/
Kallet, A., & Schlink, F. J. (1933). 100,000,000 guinea pigs: Dangers in everyday foods, drugs, and cosmetics. Vanguard Press.
UNEP. (2012). State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals. United Nations Environment Programme and the World Health Organization. Available at http://drustage.unep.org/chemicalsandwaste/sites/unep.org.chemicalsandwaste/files/publications/EDC_report_layout_cover_draft_test_290113.pdf
Vaksberg, A. (2011). Toxic Politics: The Secret History of the Kremlin’s Poison Laboratory–from the Special Cabinet to the Death of Litvinenko. ABC-CLIO.
Max Liboiron is a feminist environmental scientist, science and technology studies (STS) scholar, and an activist with a speciality in plastic pollution research. Liboiron is an Assistant Professor in Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where she directs Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a feminist laboratory that specializes in citizen science and grassroots environmental monitoring of marine plastic pollution. Her STS work focuses on how invisible yet harmful emerging phenomena such as toxicants from marine plastics become apparent in science and activism, and how these methods of representation relate to action.