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 --
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
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
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
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
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for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Department of Public Health
Department of Health and Family Services