A review on analysis methods, source identification, and cancer risk evaluation of atmospheric polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

Lord Famiyeh, Ke Chen, Jingsha Xu, Yong Sun, Qingjun Guo, Chengjun Wang, Jungang Lv, Yu Ting Tang, Huan Yu, Collin Snape, Jun He

Research output: Journal PublicationReview articlepeer-review

89 Citations (Scopus)


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have gained attention because of their environmental persistence and effects on ecosystems, animals, and human health. They are mutagenic, carcinogenic, and teratogenic. The review provides background knowledge about their sources, metabolism, temporal variations, and size distribution in atmospheric particulate matter. The review article briefly discusses the analytical methods suitable for the extraction, characterization, and quantification of nonpolar and polar PAHs, addressing the challenges. Herein, we discussed the molecular diagnostic ratios (DRs), stable carbon isotopic analysis (SCIA), and receptor models, with much emphasis on the positive matrix factorization (PMF) model, for apportioning PAH sources. Among which, DRs and PCA identified as the most widely employed method, but their accuracy for PAH source identification has received global criticism. Therefore, the review recommends compound-specific isotopic analysis (CSIA) and PMF as the best alternative methods to provide detailed qualitative and quantitative source analysis. The compound-specific isotopic signatures are not affected by environmental degradation and are considered promising for apportioning PAH sources. However, isotopic fractions of co-eluted compounds like polar PAHs and aliphatic hydrocarbons make the PAHs isotopic fractions interpretation difficult. The interference of unresolved complex mixtures is a limitation to the application of CSIA for PAH source apportionment. Hence, for CSIA to further support PAH source apportionment, fast and cost-effective purification techniques with no isotopic fractionation effects are highly desirable. The present review explains the concept of stable carbon isotopic analysis (SCIA) relevant to PAH source analysis, identifying the techniques suitable for sample extract purification. We demonstrate how the source apportioned PAHs can be applied in assessing the health risk of PAHs using the incremental lifetime cancer risk (ILCR) model, and in doing so, we identify the key factors that could undermine the accuracy of the ILCR and research gaps that need further investigation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number147741
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2021


  • Analysis methods
  • Cancer risk evaluation
  • Compound-specific isotopic analysis
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
  • Receptor models
  • Source identification

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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