Among the substances known as hydrocarbons, it is important to insist on the members of the group formed by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). This group comprises more than 100 different compounds resulting from the combustion of organic matter. Their importance resides in the effects they have on human health and on the environment, given that they are ubiquitous and have a strong carcinogenic potential.
PAH are naturally present in the environment because of forest fires, for example. But industrial growth has produced a large increase in their number. In inverse order of importance, PAH are a result of industrial processes, domestic heating, use of gasoline or diesel powered motor vehicles and incinerators. Smoking is also involved. Although tobacco smoke is insignificant as a general source, it is a form of direct exposure for both active and passive smokers.
PAH reach the surface water and groundwater through the atmosphere, industrial discharges and sewage effluents. They accumulate in organisms and in the organic matter present in particles and sediments where they are able to remain for a long time. Benzopyrene, the most well-known of these compounds, takes on average more than six years to biodegrade in water.
The fact that they persist in the environment allows these compounds to accumulate in live beings and so to join the food chain. They have different entry routes, including ingestion, inhalation or absorption through the skin. Diet can also be considered a source for PAH since almost any kind of food may contain them. How food is cooked is also important, because smoking and grilling produce higher concentrations of PAH.
PAH are usually ingested in infinitesimal amounts, but the body accumulates them and they may produce long term effects. Their concentration levels in food are so small that they defy imagination. The units used to measure them equal, for example, dividing a gram by one trillion. It is difficult to imagine that such small amounts may end up putting a person’s health at risk, but this is so.
Although the main health risk of these compounds is that they may cause cancer, practically no environmental standards or tolerance limits exist for them. As to the regulation of maximum levels of PAH in food, up to now very little legislation has been approved. We hope that this situation will change in the near future.
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