Keeping Up on Chemical Databases

January 15, 2013

Reporter’s Toolbox

Rich collection of online resources courtesy National Library of Medicine, others

By comparing observed physical characteristics of a pill with its database of high-resolution images, Pillbox enables rapid identification of unknown solid-dosage medications (tablets/capsules), and provides links to drug information available online. National Library of Medicine, NIH.

It’s the paradox of the Internet — it’s so valuable because it’s such a vast sea of information. Yet that vastness makes it difficult to keep up with all the resources out there. Longtime SEJ member Philip Wexler, technical information specialist at the National Library of Medicine, makes it his business to do just that when it comes to online databases on chemicals and their toxic properties that can be of use to environmental reporters.

Here are some of the resources Wexler shared with SEJers at the 2012 annual conference in Lubbock, Texas. Many are available here.

Hazardous Substances Data Bank: Offers detailed toxicology information on more than 5,000 chemicals, including human health and environmental effects, pharmacology and emergency medical treatment. Peer-reviewed by the HSDB Scientific Review Panel. A “flagship” site, according to Wexler. 

TOXLINE: This one’s a hardy perennial for those who explore toxics regularly and a must-check for any story you’re doing that involves a chemical. Think bibliography here. TOXLINE reaches into a number of reputable sources and tells you what research shows so far. You’ll get abstracts from studies available elsewhere, but there are some specialized databases here you might not find elsewhere including Federal Research in Progress (FEDRIP), Toxic Substances Control Act Test Submissions (TSCATS), Toxicology Document and Data Depository (NTIS) and Toxicology Research Projects (CRISP).  

TOXMAP: This geographic information system allows users to map potential exposures in a given geographic region based on Toxics Release Inventory and Superfund sites data. 

Household Products Database: A resource that tells you what’s in consumer products. Describes itself thusly: “What's under your kitchen sink, in your garage, in your bathroom, and on the shelves in your laundry room? Learn more about what's in these products, about potential health effects, and about safety and handling.” Pesticides, auto products, deodorants — they’re all there. Chemicals in individual products, and their percentages, are spelled out, along with information on the manufacturer and acute and chronic effects. 

Chemical Carcinogenesis Research Information System: If you’re reporting on a cancer risk, go here. It’s got studies on whether chemicals enhance cancer, promote tumors or cause mutations. Although it’s useful to researchers, it is highly technical and, perhaps of less value to reporters and the public. 

The Carcinogenic Potency Project: OK, so there are animal tests showing that mice get cancer if they swim in this gunk for weeks on end. (An exaggeration, but you get the idea.) This site helps translate those medical tests on animals into stuff humans might want to know. 

Toxipedia: A free toxicology encyclopedia whose goal is to “provide scientific information in the context of history, society and culture so that the public has the information needed to make sound choices that protect both human and environmental health.” It’s a project of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders, whose founder, Seattle toxicologist Stephen Gilbert, offers on the Toxipedia site a free download of his book, A Small Dose of Toxicology: The Health Effects of Common Chemicals.

Haz-Map: This National Library of Medicine resource is a go-to site if you’re trying to find out how a particular chemical affects people in the workplace. A good place if you’re looking for chronic job-related illnesses related to specific jobs or industries. Acute diseases and infections are linked to jobs but not industries. 

ChemIDplus Advanced: This one provides substantial numbers of synonyms, database links, toxicological and other properties of some 400,000 chemicals. 

Chemical Hazards Emergency Medical Management: This is designed for cops and firefighters and other first responders who might have to deal with an incident that involves a Bhopal-like disaster. It’s also possible to download this in advance if you think you might need something in a pinch or may be in an area where Internet service has been disrupted. 

World Library of Toxicology: Housed on the Toxipedia server, this site strives to link folks around the world who are looking for reliable information on the effects of chemicals globally. 

Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders: Doing a standup in front of that overturned rail car? You may be happy to know you can access this through your mobile phone, including info on more than 450 substances in the aforementioned Hazardous Substances Data Bank. 

Tox Town: Want a down-to-the-basics explanation of why that dump smells? What’s a maquiladora? Why should we care about cesspools (and exactly what are they, anyway?)? You can find answers to all those and many more questions here. Designed for kids and the lay public. 

ToxLearn: If you want to dive deep and learn the fundamentals of toxicology, this site offers you the chance to go through a multi-module toxicology tutorial. 

eChemPortal: This site, sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, is an international effort. Users can search by chemical as well as by effects, physical chemical properties, environmental fate, ecotoxicity and other characteristics. 

Pillbox: Got a bunch of pills you can’t identify? This NLM database allows you to figure out what you’re dealing with. Search either by physical characteristics such as shape, size and color or by conventional terms such as drug name. Also provides inactive ingredients. 

Radiation Emergency Medical Management: This one is your go-to site when Fukushima comes calling in your town, God forbid. But be glad it’s there! Now, where was that Geiger counter? 

Our thanks to Philip Wexler. You may want to see Wexler’s book, Information Resources in Toxicology, 4th edition, Academic Press, 2009.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2012-13. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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