Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon

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An illustration of typical polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Clockwise from top left: benz(e)acephenanthrylene, pyrene and dibenz(ah)anthracene.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), also known as poly-aromatic hydrocarbons or polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, are fused aromatic rings and do not contain heteroatoms or carry substituents.[1] Naphthalene is the simplest example of a PAH. PAHs occur in oil, coal, and tar deposits, and are produced as byproducts of fuel burning (whether fossil fuel or biomass).

They are potent atmospheric pollutants. Some compounds have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic. PAHs are also found in cooked foods. Studies have shown that high levels of PAHs are found, for example, in meat cooked at high temperatures such as grilling or barbecuing, and in smoked fish.[2][3][4]

PAHs are known to be abundant in the universe,[5][6][7] seem to have been formed as early as a couple of billion years after the Big Bang, and are associated with new stars and exoplanets.[8] More than 20% of the carbon in the universe may be associated with PAHs.[8] PAHs are considered possible starting material for the earliest forms of life.[7][8]

Occurrence and pollution[edit]

Crystal structure of a hexa-tert-butyl derivatized hexa-peri-hexabenzo(bc,ef,hi,kl,no,qr)coronene, reported by Klaus Müllen and co-workers.[9] The tert-butyl groups make this compound soluble in common solvents such as hexane, in which the unsubstituted PAH is insoluble.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are lipophilic, meaning they mix more easily with oil than water. The larger compounds are less water-soluble and less volatile. Because of these properties, PAHs in the environment are found primarily in soil, sediment, and oily substances, as opposed to in water or air. However, they are also a component of concern in particulate matter suspended in air.

Natural crude oil and coal deposits contain significant amounts of PAHs, arising from chemical conversion of natural product molecules, such as steroids, to aromatic hydrocarbons. They are also found in processed fossil fuels, tar and various edible oils.[10] In a study evaluating the genotoxic and carcinogenic risks associated with the consumption of repeatedly heated coconut oil (RCO), one of the commonly consumed cooking and frying medium, it was concluded that dietary consumption of RCO can cause a genotoxic and preneoplastic change in the liver.[11]

PAHs are one of the most widespread organic pollutants. In addition to their presence in fossil fuels they are also formed by incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels such as wood, coal, diesel, fat, tobacco, and incense.[12] Different types of combustion yield different distributions of PAHs in both relative amounts of individual PAHs and in which isomers are produced. Thus, coal burning produces a different mixture than motor-fuel combustion or a forest fire, making the compounds potentially useful as indicators of the burning history. Hydrocarbon emissions from fossil fuel-burning engines are regulated in developed countries.[13] Certain species of bacteria are capable of degrading polycyclic hydrocarbons, such as Kordiimonas gwangyangensis.[14]

PAH chemicals are often linked to oil spills. Following the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill, scientists found PAH levels to be 40 times higher than before the area was affected. The researchers said that the compounds can enter the food chain through organisms such as plankton or fish.[15][16][17] The mechanism by which oil spill PAHs poison fish was reported in a 2014 paper in the journal Science, which found that PAHs kill fish by sending them into cardiac arrest. The study also found even very low concentrations of PAHs can slow fish heartbeats and disrupt the development of fish larvae. The work may have implications for mammals and other forms of vertebrate life.[18]

Human health[edit]

The toxicity of PAHs is structure-dependent. Isomers (PAHs with the same formula and number of rings) can vary from being nontoxic to extremely toxic. One PAH compound, benzo[a]pyrene, is notable for being the first chemical carcinogen to be discovered (and is one of many carcinogens found in cigarette smoke). The EPA has classified seven PAH compounds as probable human carcinogens: benz[a]anthracene, benzo[a]pyrene, benzo[b]fluoranthene, benzo[k]fluoranthene, chrysene, dibenz(a,h)anthracene, and indeno(1,2,3-cd)pyrene.

PAHs known for their carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic properties are benz[a]anthracene and chrysene, benzo[b]fluoranthene, benzo[j]fluoranthene, benzo[k]fluoranthene, benzo[a]pyrene, benzo[ghi]perylene, coronene, dibenz(a,h)anthracene (C
), indeno(1,2,3-cd)pyrene (C
), and ovalene.[19]

High prenatal exposure to PAH is associated with lower IQ and childhood asthma.[20] The Center for Children's Environmental Health reports studies that demonstrate that exposure to PAH pollution during pregnancy is related to adverse birth outcomes including low birth weight, premature delivery, and heart malformations. Cord blood of exposed babies shows DNA damage that has been linked to cancer. Follow-up studies show a higher level of developmental delays at age three, lower scores on IQ tests and increased behaviorial problems at ages six and eight.[21]

In addition, a 2012 Columbia University study in Environmental Health Perspectives linked prenatal exposure to pollutants and eventual child behavioral outcomes. The study found that exposure to higher levels of PAH was associated with a 24% higher score of anxiety/depression for children ages 6 to 7 than those with low exposure levels. Infants found to have elevated PAH levels in their umbilical cord blood were 46% more likely to eventually score highly on the anxiety/depression scale than those with low PAH levels in cord blood.[22][23]

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry listings[edit]

Although the health effects of individual PAHs are not exactly alike, the following 18 PAHs are considered as a group in this profile issued by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR):[24]

Additional PAHs:[clarification needed]

Environmental Protection Agency priority pollutants[edit]

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated 32 PAH compounds as priority pollutants. The original 16[25] are listed. They are naphthalene, acenaphthylene, acenaphthene, fluorene, phenanthrene, anthracene, fluoranthene, pyrene, benzo[a]anthracene, chrysene, benzo[b]fluoranthene, benzo[k]fluoranthene, benzo[a]pyrene, dibenz(ah)anthracene, benzo[ghi]perylene, and indeno[1,2,3-cd]pyrene. This list of the 16 EPA priority PAHs is often targeted for measurement in environmental samples.

Structure and properties[edit]

The simplest PAHs, as defined by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), are phenanthrene and anthracene,[26] which both contain three fused aromatic rings. Smaller molecules, such as benzene, are not PAHs.

PAHs may contain four-, five-, six- or seven-member rings, but those with five or six are most common. PAHs composed only of six-membered rings are called alternant PAHs. Certain alternant PAHs are called benzenoid PAHs. The name comes from benzene, an aromatic hydrocarbon with a single, six-membered ring. These can be benzene rings interconnected with each other by single carbon-carbon bonds and with no rings remaining that do not contain a complete benzene ring. The set of alternant PAHs is closely related to a set of mathematical entities called polyhexes, which are planar figures composed by conjoining regular hexagons of identical size.

PAHs containing up to six fused aromatic rings are often known as "small" PAHs, and those containing more than six aromatic rings are called "large" PAHs. Due to the availability of samples of the various small PAHs, the bulk of research on PAHs has been of those of up to six rings. The biological activity and occurrence of the large PAHs does appear to be a continuation of the small PAHs. They are found as combustion products, but at lower levels than the small PAHs due to the kinetic limitation of their production through addition of successive rings. In addition, with many more isomers possible for larger PAHs, the occurrence of specific structures is much smaller.

Naphthalene (C10H8, a constituent of some mothballs), consisting of two coplanar six-membered rings sharing an edge, is another aromatic hydrocarbon. By formal convention, it is not a true PAH, though is referred to as a bicyclic aromatic hydrocarbon.

Aqueous solubility decreases approximately one order of magnitude for each additional ring.


Although PAHs clearly are aromatic compounds, the degree of aromaticity can be different for each ring segment. According to Clar's rule (formulated by Erich Clar in 1964)[27] for PAHs the resonance structure with the most disjoint aromatic п-sextets—i.e. benzene-like moieties—is the most important for the characterization of the properties.[28]

Phenanthrene Clar rule.svg Anthracene Clar rule.svg
Phenanthrene Anthracene

For example, in phenanthrene one Clar structure has two sextets at the extremities, while the other resonance structure has just one central sextet. Therefore in this molecule the outer rings are have greater aromatic character whereas the central ring is less aromatic and therefore more reactive. In contrast, in anthracene the resonance structures have one sextet, which can be at any of the three rings, and the aromaticity spreads out more evenly across the whole molecule. This difference in number of sextets is reflected[clarification needed] in the UV absorbance spectra of these two isomers. Phenanthrene has a highest wavelength absorbance around 290 nm, while anthracene has highest wavelength bands around 380 nm.

Chrysene Clar rule.svg Clar rule.svg
Chrysene Zethrene

Three Clar structures with two sextets each are present in chrysene. Superposition of these structures reveals that the aromaticity in the outer rings is greater (each has a sextet in two of the three Clar structures) compared to the inner rings (each has a sextet in only one of the three). Another example Clar hydrocarbon is zethrene, which is illustrated in the form with the most sextets. Four of the rings are highly aromatic, while the others are less-so, and therefore more reactive.

Detection and optical properties[edit]

Detection of PAHs in materials is often done using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry or liquid chromatography with ultraviolet-visible or fluorescence spectroscopic methods or by using rapid test PAH indicator strips.

PAHs possess very characteristic UV absorbance spectra. These often possess many absorbance bands and are unique for each ring structure. Thus, for a set of isomers, each isomer has a different UV absorbance spectrum than the others. This is particularly useful in the identification of PAHs. Most PAHs are also fluorescent, emitting characteristic wavelengths of light when they are excited (when the molecules absorb light). The extended pi-electron electronic structures of PAHs lead to these spectra, as well as to certain large PAHs also exhibiting semi-conducting and other behaviors.

Origins of life[edit]

Two extremely bright stars illuminate a mist of PAHs in this Spitzer image.

In January 2004 (at the 203rd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society), it was reported[29] that a team led by A. Witt of the University of Toledo, Ohio studied ultraviolet light emitted by the Red Rectangle nebula and found spectral signatures that suggest the presence of anthracene and pyrene (no other such complex molecules had ever been found in space).[30] This report was considered a controversial hypothesis that as nebulae of the same type as the Red Rectangle approach the ends of their lives, convection currents cause carbon and hydrogen in the nebulae's core to get caught in stellar winds, and radiate outward. As they cool, the atoms supposedly bond to each other in various ways and eventually form particles of a million or more atoms. Witt and his team inferred[29] that PAHs —which may have been vital in the formation of early life on Earth— in a nebula, by necessity they must originate in nebulae.[30]

More recently, fullerenes (or "buckyballs"), have been detected in other nebulae.[31] Fullerenes are also implicated in the origin of life; according to astronomer Letizia Stanghellini, "It's possible that buckyballs from outer space provided seeds for life on Earth."[32] In September 2012, NASA scientists reported results of analog studies in vitro that PAHs, subjected to interstellar medium (ISM) conditions, are transformed, through hydrogenation, oxygenation, and hydroxylation, to more complex organics—"a step along the path toward amino acids and nucleotides, the raw materials of proteins and DNA, respectively".[33][34] Further, as a result of these transformations, the PAHs lose their spectroscopic signature which could be one of the reasons "for the lack of PAH detection in interstellar ice grains, particularly the outer regions of cold, dense clouds or the upper molecular layers of protoplanetary disks."[33][34]

In June 2013, the detection of PAHs in the upper atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of the planet Saturn, was reported by scientists at IAA-CSIC.[35]

On February 21, 2014, NASA announced a greatly upgraded database[8] for tracking polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the universe. According to scientists, more than 20% of the carbon in the universe may be associated with PAHs, possible starting materials for the formation of life. PAHs seem to have been formed as early as "a couple of billion years" after the Big Bang, are widespread throughout the universe,[5][6][7] and are associated with new stars and exoplanets.[8]

See also[edit]


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  3. ^ Larsson, B. K.; Sahlberg, GP; Eriksson, AT; Busk, LA (1983). "Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in grilled food". J Agric Food Chem. 31 (4): 867–873. doi:10.1021/jf00118a049. PMID 6352775. 
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  5. ^ a b Carey, Bjorn (October 18, 2005). "Life's Building Blocks 'Abundant in Space'". Space.com. Retrieved March 3, 2014. 
  6. ^ a b Hudgins, Douglas M.; Bauschlicher,Jr, Charles W.; Allamandola, L. J. (October 10, 2005). "Variations in the Peak Position of the 6.2 μm Interstellar Emission Feature: A Tracer of N in the Interstellar Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Population". Astrophysical Journal 632: 316–332. Retrieved March 3, 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c Allamandola, Louis et al. (April 13, 2011). "Cosmic Distribution of Chemical Complexity". NASA. Retrieved March 3, 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Hoover, Rachel (21 February 2014). "Need to Track Organic Nano-Particles Across the Universe? NASA's Got an App for That". NASA. Retrieved 22 February 2014. 
  9. ^ Herwig, Peter T.; Enkelmann, Volker; Schmelz, Oliver; Müllen, Klaus (2000). "Synthesis and Structural Characterization of Hexa-tert-butyl- hexa-peri-hexabenzocoronene, Its Radical Cation Salt and Its Tricarbonylchromium Complex". Chemistry: A European Journal (Chem.-Euro.J.) 18 (10): 1834–1839. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1521-3765(20000515)6:10<1834::AID-CHEM1834>3.0.CO;2-L. 
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  13. ^ For example, EPA regulations for small engines are at 40 CFR §90.103; see emission standard for more information.
  14. ^ K.K. Kwon, H.-S. Lee, S.H. Yang & S.-J. Kim. (2005). "Kordiimonas gwangyangensis gen. nov., sp. nov., a marine bacterium isolated from marine sediments that forms a distinct phyletic lineage (Kordiimonadales ord. nov.) in the ‘Alphaproteobacteria’". International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology 55 (Pt 5): 2033–2037. doi:10.1099/ijs.0.63684-0. PMID 16166706. 
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  18. ^ Sahagun, Louis (February 13, 2014). "Toxins released by oil spills send fish hearts into cardiac arrest". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 17 February 2014. 
  19. ^ Luch, A. (2005). The Carcinogenic Effects of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. London: Imperial College Press. ISBN 1-86094-417-5. 
  20. ^ Exposure to Common Pollutant in Womb Might Lower IQ
  21. ^ http://www.ccceh.org/pdf-press/Time10-4-10.pdf
  22. ^ "Prenatal Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) Exposure and Child Behavior at Age 6-7".  JournalistsResource.org, retrieved 4 April 2012
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  24. ^ [1]
  25. ^ PMC 2713671
  26. ^ G.P. Moss IUPAC nomenclature for fused-ring systems[full citation needed]
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  31. ^ García-Hernández, D. A.; Manchado, A.; García-Lario, P.; Stanghellini, L.; Villaver, E.; Shaw, R. A.; Szczerba, R.; Perea-Calderón, J. V. (2010-10-28). "Formation Of Fullerenes In H-Containing Planatary Nebulae". The Astrophysical Journal Letters 724 (1): L39–L43. arXiv:1009.4357. Bibcode:2010ApJ...724L..39G. doi:10.1088/2041-8205/724/1/L39. 
  32. ^ Atkinson, Nancy (2010-10-27). "Buckyballs Could Be Plentiful in the Universe". Universe Today. Retrieved 2010-10-28. 
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  34. ^ a b Gudipati, Murthy S.; Yang, Rui title=In-Situ Probing Of Radiation-Induced Processing Of Organics In Astrophysical Ice Analogs—Novel Laser Desorption Laser Ionization Time-Of-Flight Mass Spectroscopic Studies (September 1, 2012). The Astrophysical Journal Letters 756 (1). Bibcode:2012ApJ...756L..24G. doi:10.1088/2041-8205/756/1/L24 http://iopscience.iop.org/2041-8205/756/1/L24 |url= missing title (help). Retrieved September 22, 2012. 
  35. ^ López-Puertas, Manuel (June 6, 2013). "PAH's in Titan's Upper Atmosphere". CSIC. Retrieved June 6, 2013. 

External links[edit]