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What are Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)?

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or PAHs are a group of chemicals found in coal, crude oil, and gasoline. They can also be present in food that has been cooked at high temperatures. They can be released when coal, oil, wood, garbage, and tobacco is burned. PAHs are naturally produced during forest fires and by volcanoes. 

Exposure to PAHs

Exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons usually occurs by breathing air contaminated by wildfires, coal tar, cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust, wood smoke, asphalt fumes, or by eating foods that have been grilled, charred, or roasted.  It can be present in the soil near hazardous waste sites and has been found in some drinking water supplies in the US. PAHs are usually present at higher levels in urban areas.

Health Effects of PAHs

Certain PAHs have been seen to cause negative health effects. Obviously, the level of exposure, amount of time exposed, and how the body reacts to PAHs plays a role in the health effects experienced. 

Some short term health effects can include: 

  • Eye irritation
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea 
  • Confusion

Some long term health effects include:

  • Cataracts
  • Kidney and liver damage
  • Jaundice
  • Inflammation of the skin
  • Possibly increased risk of cancer

How to Prevent Exposure to PAHs

  • Stop smoking (this is a major way people are exposed to PAHs)
  • Reduce use of wood burning stoves and fireplaces
  • Eat less smoked and charbroiled foods
  • When working with products containing PAHs, wear appropriate protections
  • Decrease use of coal-tar based cosmetics and shampoos- (What are coal-tar based cosmetics and what to look for in ingredients lists!)
  • If living near a place affected by wildfires try to limit time outdoors when air quality is bad, wear a proper respirator when outside for extended periods of time, and make sure your indoor air filters are functioning properly


Read this pamphlet by the Illinois Department of Public Health that outlines exposure pathways and health impacts.

This website highlights the effects the California wildfires could have on residents’ health.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)