Toxic yes: Toxins? No

An Associated Press story in this morning’s paper dealt with potential risks in an “alternative caviar.” It caught my attention owing to its deck (extended headline), which reported that “toxins” in these paddlefish eggs “make officials uneasy.” Toxins? Really?

I quickly glanced down to find out specifically what that “variety of toxins” had been that turned up in the fish’s eggs. According to the body of the story, these were the toxic heavy metal mercury; chlordane, a now-banned termite-killing pesticide; and polychlorinated biphenyls, which are electrically insulating oils.

Those findings could be troubling, indeed. But they’re certainly not toxins – despite what the story’s author (Roger Alford) and the newspaper’s headline writer both assert.

Toxins are poisons made by biological organisms as in bee venom, snake venom, the damoic acid produced by some harmful algal blooms, or the blistering agents released by some insects. They are never a synthetic chemical, such as a pesticide, combustion byproduct, or flame retardant. They are never a natural inorganic chemical or element, such as lead, arsenic, or asbestos.

Consult any Webster’s dictionary. Toxin is not synonymous with poison, although it is sloppily misused as such, as in this story and dozens more that I encounter each month.

There is a reason why EPA refers to pesticides with the inelegant term “toxics.” It’s in recognition that these chemicals are not toxins but are toxic. It’s the agency’s short-hand for the more accurate but boring mouthful: toxic substances.

We journalists are supposed to be wordsmiths, those with a bigger vocabulary and better ability to wield words accurately than the majority of our readers. If my colleagues today had wanted a short and snappy alternative to toxic chemicals, they might have used toxics. They just should not have misappropriated toxins.

And now I’ll step down off my much-scuffed soapbox.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Humans

From the Nature Index

Paid Content