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The Definition of Toxin

Gillard, Jim MD


Tucson, AZ

Editor: I have noticed a specific noun being used incorrectly more frequently in print. I now noticed its use in the March issue on asbestos (“An Asbestos Primer for Emergency Physicians,” Toxicology Rounds, Michael Greenberg, MD, p. 18). Asbestos is not by definition a toxin.

A toxin is defined in medical dictionaries and in microbiology and biochemistry textbooks as “a poison; frequently used to refer specifically to a protein or conjugated protein substance produced by some higher plants, certain animals, and pathogenic bacteria that is highly toxic for other living organisms. Such substances are differentiated from the simple chemical poisons and vegetable alkyloids by their high molecular weight and antigenicity.”

A funny thing, the English language. If a word is incorrectly used by enough of the population for a long enough time, the word takes on a new, correct meaning. I don't think, however, toxin is there yet.

Jim Gillard, MD

Tucson, AZ

© 2001 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.