PAH analysis – overview of EU regulations and testing requirements

Published January 27, 2023

Juha Keskiväli

Juha Keskiväli – PhD, chemistry

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Chemical analyses, Measurlabs

juha.keskivali@measurlabs.com

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 ensure 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 of these 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

Product

Limit for benzo(a)pyrene

Limit for PAH 4

Cocoa beans and derived products

5 μg/kg

30 μg/kg

Coconut oil

2 μg/kg

20 μg/kg

Other oils and fats

2 μg/kg

10 μg/kg

Smoked meats and meat products

2 μg/kg

12 μg/kg

Smoked fish and fishery products

2 μg/kg

12 μg/kg

Smoked mollusks

6 μg/kg

35 μg/kg

Baby food and infant formula

1 μg/kg

1 μg/kg

Traditionally smoked meat and fishery products*

5 μg/kg

30 μg/kg

Plant powders used in the preparation of drinks

10 μg/kg

50 μg/kg

Smoke flavors

10 μg/kg

20 μg/kg**

* 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.

The REACH regulation and PAH 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 body3. 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 PAHs. 

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: 

  • Benzo[a]pyrene

  • Benzo[e]pyrene

  • Benzo[a]anthracene

  • Chrysene

  • Benzo[b]fluoranthene

  • Benzo[j]fluoranthene

  • Benzo[k]fluoranthene

  • Dibenzo[a,h]anthracene

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: 

If you have any questions regarding the suitability of your samples, or if you wish to discuss your testing needs in more detail, do not hesitate to contact our experts. Send a message to info@measurlabs.com, and we will get back to you within one business day.

References: 

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 are also regulated by Regulation (EC) No 2065/2003 (smoke flavors), (EC) No 1881/2006 (traditionally smoked meat and fish), and (EU) No 2020/1255 (plant-based powders and confirmation of limits for traditionally smoked products).

3 Restrictions on PAH compounds are outlined in entry 50 of annex XVII of the REACH regulation.

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