Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are harmful pollutants that may end up in the body through certain foods, skin exposure, and air containing cigarette smoke, exhaust gases, or asphalt fumes. EU legislation defines maximum permissible PAH concentrations for several types of products and materials. At Measurlabs, we offer the required laboratory testing to demonstrate compliance with these limits.
What are polyaromatic hydrocarbons?
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or polyaromatic hydrocarbons are a group of organic compounds whose molecular structure contains two or more aromatic rings fused together. PAH are formed as a result of incomplete combustion of fuels, often in the oil industry and transport, or when organic material such as wood or animal fat burns incompletely.
Many PAH compounds have been demonstrated to have genotoxic and mutagenic properties, which means that they can induce mutations in the genome. 16 PAH have been linked to an increased risk of cancer and are therefore classified as carcinogenic by the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA1.
EU regulations on PAH in food
PAH compounds may end up in food as a result of environmental contamination of the raw materials, or they may be formed during the manufacturing or cooking process. They are most likely to be present in smoked, roasted, grilled, or dried foods, oils, and fats. EU regulations mandate PAH testing to be performed on such high-risk foods and products intended for small children.
The maximum levels for PAH in different foodstuffs are set in Regulation (EU) No 835/20112. Not all PAH compounds need to be screened individually. Instead, the legislation places limits on the presence of benzo(a)pyrene and the combination of benzo(a)pyrene, benz(a)anthracene, benzo(b)fluoranthene, and chrysene, known together as PAH 4. The maximum concentrations for certain products are outlined in Table 1.
Table 1: Maximum PAH concentrations in food by product type
Limit for benzo(a)pyrene
Limit for PAH 4
Cocoa beans and derived products
Other oils and fats
Smoked meats and meat products
Smoked fish and fishery products
Baby food and infant formula
Traditionally smoked meat and fishery products*
Plant powders used in the preparation of drinks
* These higher limits apply to specific types of traditionally smoked products in Ireland, Croatia, Cyprus, Spain, Poland, Portugal, Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, and Sweden. The product must be produced and sold domestically.
** Instead of PAH 4, this limit only applies to benz(a)anthracene.
Limits on PAH in drinking water
EU's New Drinking Water Directive (EU) 2020/2184 defines maximum levels for a wide range of chemical contaminants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons3. According to the directive, the sum of benzo(b)fluoranthene, benzo(k)fluoranthene, benzo(ghi)perylene, and indeno(1,2,3-cd)pyrene must not exceed 0.10 μg/l. In addition, the amount of benzo(a)pyrene must not exceed 0.01 μg/l.
PAH compounds prohibited in cosmetic products
The EU Cosmetics Regulation (1223/2009) lists around 1,700 substances that are prohibited in cosmetics. Several PAH compounds are among the prohibitions, including benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(e)pyrene, chrysene, and benzo(k)fluoranthene. In addition, the use of numerous coal-based substances, such as paraffin waxes and coal tar, is forbidden if they contain more than 0.005 weight percentages of benzo(a)pyrene.
The REACH regulation and PAHs in consumer products
The European Union’s REACH regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals) defines maximum concentrations for eight PAH compounds in products that come into contact with the human body4. Such products include, among others, clothing, accessories, sports equipment, tools, and household utensils. These products may not be sold in the EU if they contain more than 1 mg/kg of any of the eight PAH.
The limit is stricter for toys and other childcare articles. These may not be sold if they contain more than 0.5 mg/kg of any listed PAH.
The following polyaromatic hydrocarbons are listed in the REACH regulation:
PAH analysis methods
PAH analyses can be performed using various methods. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) are the most common techniques used for quantifying PAHs in food. GC-MS is also used to determine the PAH content of environmental samples, such as air and water.
In some cases, PAH analysis can be performed using supercritical fluid chromatography (SFC), liquid chromatography (LC), or a heavy distillates analyzer (HDA). The chosen method depends on the boiling range of the sample along with product specifications and regulations.
Need an analysis?
Measurlabs offers accredited PAH testing for several material types. The following tests can be purchased online:
PAH compounds in water (other liquids may be analyzed as well)
PAH in fabrics and solid materials (16 compounds)
PAH in asphalt (16 compounds)
If you wish to discuss your testing needs in more detail, do not hesitate to contact our experts. Send a message to email@example.com or use the contact form below, and we will get back to you within one business day.
1 The 16 most toxicologically concerning PAHs are listed in Table 1 of EFSA’s Scientific opinion on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in food.
2 Regulation (EU) No 835/2011 can be found here. PAHs in food are also regulated by Regulation (EC) No 2065/2003 (smoke flavors), Regulation (EU) No (EU) 2015/1933 (supplements, herbs, spices), and (EU) No 2020/1255 (plant-based powders and traditionally smoked products). The limits established by different regulations are incorporated into the consolidated version of Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 on food contaminants.
3 Directive (EU) 2020/2184, the minimum requirements for chemical parameters in drinking water are outlined in Part B of Annex I.
4 Restrictions on PAH compounds are outlined in entry 50 of annex XVII of the REACH regulation.