PAHs are everywhere. Urban environments, in particular, have many sources of PAHs.
Low-level PAH exposures: PAHs are extremely common in the environment. All of us are exposed to PAHs every day in the air we breathe and the food we eat. Our metabolism is adapted to handle these frequent low-level exposures. Based on our knowledge of the effects of higher-level exposures in workers and experimental animals, we can calculate a degree of risk from low-level exposures. However, the effects of low-level exposures are difficult to observe and measure in the general population.
Breathing: PAHs are familiar to most of us as the sooty material in smoke. Most people are exposed to PAHs when they breathe smoke, auto emissions or industrial exhausts. Most exhausts contain many different PAH compounds. Frequent exposure over many years may lead to health problems, particularly to the lungs and heart. People with the highest exposures are smokers and, people who live or work with smokers, as well as, roofers, road builders and people who live near major highways or industrial sources.
Drinking/Eating: Grilled, smoked and charbroiled foods, especially meats, are a source of some PAH exposure. PAHs may be in soil near disposal sites where construction wastes or ash is buried. Due to metabolism of PAHs by vertebrates, there is no significant accumulation of PAHs in fish meat. However, eating shellfish living in contaminated water may be another major source of exposure. Vegetables do not take up significant amounts of PAHs that are in soil. PAHs may be in groundwater near disposal sites where construction wastes or ash is buried; people may be exposed by drinking this water.
Touching: Concentrated PAHs can affect the skin, particularly when dissolved in oily solvents to form tar. Contact with oily or tarry materials, combined with sunlight, can cause redness or irritation to the skin. In contaminated waterways, exposures can come from contact with oily sheens in the water or contact with oil on fish or driftwood. Most of the exposure is to the hands, with a lesser probability from splashes to limbs or face. In addition to exposure related to fishing, there is a potential for skin contact via wading. Skin that comes in contact with PAHs should be washed immediately with soap.
HOW CAN I REDUCE MY EXPOSURE?
Awareness of potential PAH exposure through hobbies, recreational, and home/outdoor scenarios, and taking action to minimize or avoid exposure may decrease the risk of PAH overexposure. Cigarette smoke contains PAHs and other carcinogenic substances. Exposure to PAHs by smoking or second hand smoke may increase the risk of overexposure to PAHs and PAH-related disease.
Additionally, there are some foods that contain PAHs. Minimizing consumption of charbroiled, chargrilled and smoked meats and fish can all reduce your exposure to PAHs.
You can decrease your exposure to PAHs by wearing gloves when working with cutting oils, washing your skin immediately after coming in contact with products or contaminated soils containing PAHs, and avoiding smoke from campfires. Produce grown in contaminated soil should be washed before consumption and root vegetables should be washed and peeled.
CAN A MEDICAL TEST DETERMINE EXPOSURE TO PAHs?
Many PAHs can be detected in blood or urine soon after exposure. Tests for these compounds are not routine and can only be performed using special equipment not usually found in doctor's offices. People who think they may have been exposed to PAHs for a long time should contact their physician. Blood tests of liver and kidney function are available. People exposed to PAHs in air may want to ask their doctor to consider having lung function tests done.
Seek medical advice if you have any symptoms that you think may be related to chemical exposure.
This fact sheet summarizes information about this chemical and is not a complete listing of all possible effects. It does not refer to work exposure or emergency situations.