Oxford Dictionary has brought joy to the hearts of toxicologists around the world – by announcing that their Word of the Year 2018, is “toxic”! We know what it means, we can spell it, and we write it a lot…but why this sudden surge in fame? Apparently, there has been a 45% increase in its use as a search term – not so joyous, unfortunately, are the probable foundations of its new-found popularity:

In the UK, a Russian intelligence officer and his daughter were poisoned using Novichok

  • This nerve agent targets acetylcholinesterase; an enzyme responsible for the breakdown of acetylcholine in the synaptic cleft. This leads to the neurotransmitter essentially flooding the gaps between nerve cells, resulting in continuous contraction of the muscles. Eventually, the muscles stop responding to acetylcholine, causing flaccid paralysis and respiratory failure.

In the US, hurricanes posed a threat of spreading toxic waste

  • Disruption of coal ash stores was greatly feared. Coal ash is a by-product of the combustion of coal, it is capable of releasing: lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, arsenic and selenium into the atmosphere, thereby posing a significant risk to public health and the environment.

In India, burning of plastic and electronic waste made headlines

  • The combustion of plastic waste can release styrene gas, dioxins, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls and furans with various toxic effects including the formation of tumours, lung disease, hormone disruption and bio-accumulation.

In the US, algal blooms caused disruption

  • Fertiliser (a limiting factor for photosynthesis) run-off from agricultural land can lead to eutrophication (excessive plant and algal growth). Some of the effects include: limited light penetration, altered water pH, oxygen availability and the production of toxins (microcystin and anatoxin-a). This poses a risk to aquatic ecosystems and water quality for human consumption.

Apart from these literal uses, “toxic” has jumped out of the scientific reservation and is the “go-to” word to describe the work place environment (not ours, your honour) as well as relationships. The Me-Too Movement has resulted in “masculinity” becoming the second most used word tagged onto toxic. “Toxic” has now even morphed into a much-favoured harsh adjective beloved of headline writers. To avoid confusion, we’re sticking to the literal use of the “toxic”…and with that said, we are glad to hear of the recent success of this lovely word and wish it all the best in the future.



Amesbury Novichok poisoning. Accessed 27/11/2018. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/ckd0gnzmq6zt/amesbury-novichok-poisoning

Chislock, M. F. (et al.) (2013). Eutrophication: Causes, Consequences, and Controls in Aquatic Ecosystems. Nature Education Knowledge 4(4):10. https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/eutrophication-causes-consequences-and-controls-in-aquatic-102364466

Greaves, I. and Hunt, P. (2010). Responding to terrorism. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone. Chapter 5: Pages 233-344. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780080450438000052

Grist. Toxic algae has oozed out of lakes and into Florida’s Senate race. Accessed 19/11/2018. https://grist.org/article/toxic-algae-has-oozed-out-of-lakes-and-into-floridas-senate-race/

Mumbai Mirror. Mahim residents fume over open burning of toxic waste. Accessed 19/11/2018 https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/civic/mahim-residents-fume-over-open-burning-of-toxic-waste/articleshow/66598354.cms

Time. Hurricane Florence Risks: Toxic Sludge, Pig Manure Lagoons Accessed 19/11/2018 http://time.com/5392478/hurricane-florence-risks-sludge-manure/

WECF (2004) Dangerous Health Effects of Home Burning of Plastics and Waste. Accessed 27/11/2018 http://www.wecf.eu/cms/download/2004-2005/homeburning_plastics.pdf

Word of the Year 2018 is… Accessed 19/11/2018. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2018


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