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Are You Exposed to Dangerous Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Don't Even Know It?

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of chemicals, over 100 in all, that many Americans may be exposed to. There are many varieties out there, but some of the most well-known are benzo(a)pyrene and naphthalene (used in mothballs).

Most commonly, PAHs are released into the air when fossil fuels, gasoline and garbage are burned, but other routes of exposures -- such as eating charbroiled and smoked foods -- also exist.

Grilling out is a favorite summer pastime, but eating charbroiled, barbecued and smoked foods can increase your exposure to PAHs.

How You Can be Exposed to PAHs

Perhaps the most common route of exposure to these chemicals is by breathing contaminated air. PAHs exist in cigarette smoke, wood smoke, vehicle exhaust, diesel exhaust and asphalt roads, as well as in the air of industrial coking, coal-tar and asphalt production facilities, along with trash-incinerating facilities.

Because of this, air in urban areas may have PAH levels 10 times higher than those in rural areas.

PAHs are also created when meats are barbecued, smoked or charbroiled. Other foods, including roasted coffee, roasted peanuts, refined vegetable oils and any food grown in PAH-contaminated soil (such as near a hazardous waste site) may also contain the chemicals, as can processed and pickled foods.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons can also contaminate soil and water supplies, and certain areas in the United States have shown low-level PAHs in their water. The compounds are so widespread that simply coming into contact with air, water or soil around a hazardous waste site can increase your exposure.

Finally, PAHs are used in certain cosmetics, shampoos and hair dyes (anything that contains coal tar), and you may absorb some of the chemicals if you use these products. They're also present in certain household products, including creosote-treated wood and mothballs,

Health Risks of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons

urban pollution

Air in urban areas can have 10 times the PAH levels as rural air.

PAHs are capable of causing serious problems for humans and animals. They are "reasonably expected to be carcinogens," according to the Department of Health and Human Services, and have also been found to cause reproductive and developmental harm.

For instance, mice fed high levels of a PAH during pregnancy had problems reproducing, as did their offspring. The offspring also had higher rates of birth defects and lower body weights.

Exposure to PAHs over time has been linked to cataracts, kidney and liver damage and jaundice in humans, and animal studies have shown the chemicals to harm the skin, body fluids and the body's ability to fight disease.

It's also known that people who have breathed or touched PAHs over time have developed cancer, and animals that breathed the chemicals developed lung cancer, while those that ate them got stomach cancer and those that had them applied to their skin got skin cancer.

How to Best Reduce Your Exposure to PAHs

Because PAHs are ubiquitous in the environment (they're even found in house dust) you probably can't eliminate your exposure, but you can certainly cut it down with these tips from the Illinois Department of Public Health:

  • Quit smoking if you do, and try not to be around second-hand tobacco smoke

  • Cut back on, or eliminate, charbroiled, smoked and barbecued foods from your diet

  • Reduce your use of wood-burning stoves and fireplaces

  • Don't use cosmetics, shampoos and hair dyes that contain coal tar

  • Don't use mothballs, moth flakes or deodorant cakes (try cedar shavings or aromatic herbs instead)

  • Avoid skin contact with creosote-treated wood products (wear gloves, long pants and long sleeves when handling them)

Recommended Reading

Gas Appliance Pollutants in the Home: The Widely Unknown but Very Serious Dangers of Gas Appliances

How Typical Roadside Dirt Can Pose Serious Health Risks to You


Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Illinois Department of Public Health

Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services

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