Hazard Watch: Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the workplace

PAHs are a family of organic compounds that occur naturally in coal, crude oil and gasoline. While the risk of exposure to them in the general population is low, they remain a risk in some workplaces.

There are several hundred PAHs, and they are present at low levels in the general environment. They are a class of chemicals that are commonly emitted in vehicle exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke, wood smoke and fumes from asphalt roads. Naphthalene is also a manmade PAH to make other chemicals and mothballs.  

Exposure to PAHs in the workplace

Workers in or near facilities that use petroleum or coal, or where oil, wood, food and waste are burned, have a higher likelihood of exposure to PAHs. You could also be exposed if your workplace produces petroleum, asphalt, coal tar or aluminium. Exposure can arise via skin contact with contaminated soil or products like creosote, roofing tar and heavy oils. You could also be exposed to PAHs. by consuming contaminated food and water, but they most commonly enter the body through our lungs, as we breathe in polluted air. Other symptoms of long-term PAH exposure include lung damage, breathing problems, skin irritation, a weakened immune system and heart disease.

Of the hundreds of known PAHs, 16 have been designated High Priority Pollutants by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These 16 PAHs are of environmental concern because of their potential toxicity in humans and other organisms and their prevalence and persistence in the environment. They include:

  • Naphthalene
  • Acenaphthylene
  • Acenaphthene
  • Fluorene
  • Phenanthrene
  • Anthracene
  • Fluoranthene
  • Pyrene
  • Benzo[A]Anthracene
  • Chrysene
  • Benzo[B]Fluoranthene
  • Benzo[K]Fluoranthene
  • Benzo[A]Pyrene
  • Benzo[G,H,I]Perylene
  • Indeno[1,2,3-C,D]Pyrene
  • Dibenz[A,H]Anthracene

Our expertise in PAH analysis and prevention

Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for their workers, this involves preventing exposure to PAHs where possible. They must implement control measures, such as appropriate personal protective equipment and Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) Systems to ensure the risk of harm is as low as reasonably practicable.

Our Manchester laboratory offer a suite of analysis for PAHs in air samples. We use gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GS-MS) to determine concentrations with a limit of detection of just 0.1ug. This allows employers to accurately identify whether PAHs are likely to pose a risk to their employees, helping to guide decision making on how to prevent and control exposure to create a safer workplace.

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