BackgroundPolycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are abundant and widespread environmental chemicals. They are produced naturally and through man-made processes, and they are common in organic media, including petroleum. Several PAHs are toxic, and a subset exhibit carcinogenic activity. PAHs represent a range of chemical structures based on two or more benzene rings and, depending on their source, can exhibit a variety of side modifications resulting from oxygenation, nitrogenation, and alkylation.
ObjectivesHere we discuss the increasing ability of contemporary analytical methods to distinguish not only different chemical structures among PAHs but also their concentrations in environmental media. Using seafood contamination following the Deepwater Horizon accident as an example, we identify issues that are emerging in the PAH risk assessment process because of increasing analytical sensitivity for individual PAHs, and we describe the paucity of toxicological literature for many of these compounds.
DiscussionPAHs, including the large variety of chemically modified or substituted PAHs, are naturally occurring and may constitute health risks if human populations are exposed to hazardous levels. However, toxicity evaluations have not kept pace with modern analytic methods and their increased ability to detect substituted PAHs. Therefore, although it is possible to measure these compounds in seafood and other media, we do not have sufficient information on the potential toxicity of these compounds to incorporate them into human health risk assessments and characterizations.
ConclusionsFuture research efforts should strategically attempt to fill this toxicological knowledge gap so human health risk assessments of PAHs in environmental media or food can be better determined. This is especially important in the aftermath of petroleum spills.