Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are aromatic hydrocarbons with two to seven fused carbon (benzene) rings that can have substituted groups attached. Shallow coastal, estuarine, lake, and river environments receive PAHs from treated wastewater, stormwater runoff, petroleum spills and natural seeps, recreational and commercial boats, natural fires, volcanoes, and atmospheric deposition of combustion products. Abiotic degradation of PAHs is caused by photooxidation, photolysis in water, and chemical oxidation. Many aquatic microbes, plants, and animals can metabolize and excrete ingested PAHs; accumulation is associated with poor metabolic capabilities, high lipid content, and activity patterns or distributions that coincide with high concentrations of PAHs. Resistance to biological transformation increases with increasing number of carbon rings. Four- to seven-ring PAHs are the most difficult to metabolize and the most likely to accumulate in sediments. Disturbance by boating activity of sediments, shorelines, and the surface microlayer of water causes water column re-entry of recently deposited or concentrated PAHs. Residence time for PAHs in undisturbed sediment exceeds several decades. Toxicity of PAHs causes lethal and sublethal effects in plants and animals, whereas some substituted PAHs and metabolites of some PAHs cause mutations, developmental malformations, tumors, and cancer. Environmental concentrations of PAHs in water are usually several orders of magnitude below levels that are acutely toxic, but concentrations can be much higher in sediment. The best evidence for a link between environmental PAHs and induction of cancerous neoplasms is for demersal fish in areas with high concentrations of PAHs in the sediment.
Additional publication details
Sources, fate, and effects of PAHs in shallow water environments: a review with special reference to small watercraft
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
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Other Government Series
Larger Work Title:
Impacts of Motorized Watercraft on Shallow Estuarine and Coastal Marine Environments.