Skip to main content

Assessment of the exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in users of various tobacco/nicotine products by suitable urinary biomarkers


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) occur naturally (bitumen and oils) and are formed during all incomplete combustions of organic materials. PAH exposure sources are manifold and include specific workplaces, ambient air, various foodstuffs, tobacco smoke and some medications. At least four members of this class of chemicals have been classified as proven or probable human carcinogens. Assessment of the exposure to PAHs with suitable methods is of importance, particularly in users of new-generation tobacco/nicotine products, which are intended to replace combustible cigarettes (CCs), a major source of non-occupational exposure to PAHs. In a clinical study comprising a period of 74 h under confinement, we investigated the exposure to naphthalene (Nap), fluorene (Flu), phenanthrene (Phe), pyrene (Pyr) and benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) by measuring urinary monohydroxy-PAH (OH-PAH) derived from these parent compounds in habitual users of CCs, electronic cigarettes (ECs), heated tobacco products (HTPs), oral tobacco (OT), and nicotine replacement therapy products (NRTs). Non-users (NU) of any tobacco/nicotine products served as (negative) control group. Smokers exhibited the highest levels for all PAH biomarkers measured, almost all of which were significantly different from the NU and user groups of all other products investigated. CC smokers were the only group which showed a significant relationship between almost all PAH biomarkers and dose markers such as daily consumption, urinary nicotine equivalents (Nequ) and plasma cotinine (CotP). The ratios in urinary OH-PAH between CC and all other groups were dependent on the biomarker and range from < 2 to > 10. These ratios could at least partly be explained by the enzymes involved, their region-selectivity and inducibility by smoking. In conclusion, cigarette smokers (CC) were the only group, which showed product use dependent exposure to PAHs, whereas users of EC, HTP, NRT and OT were not distinguishable from NU of any tobacco/nicotine products.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


Download references


The authors would like to thank Filip Sibul for helping organize and monitor the conductance of the clinical study. We thank Janina Mütze and Michael Sprenzel for conducting the analyses for OH-PAHs and Nequ in urine as well as cotinine in plasma.


This study was funded with a grant from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) (Grant number: 2018/03), a US nonprofit 501(c) (3) private foundation. FSFW had no role in the planning and execution of this study, data analysis and publication of the results. The Foundation accepts charitable gifts from PMI Global Services Inc. (PMI); under the Foundation’s Bylaws and Pledge Agreement with PMI, the Foundation is independent from PMI and the tobacco industry.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



Conceptualization, MS, GS and NP; formal analysis, NR; writing—original draft preparation, GS; writing—review and editing, NP, MS; supervision, MS, NP; project administration, MS; funding acquisition, MS and NP. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gerhard Scherer.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest. The funders had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary Information

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary file1 (DOCX 20 KB)

Rights and permissions

Springer Nature or its licensor holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Scherer, G., Scherer, M., Rögner, N. et al. Assessment of the exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in users of various tobacco/nicotine products by suitable urinary biomarkers. Arch Toxicol 96, 3113–3126 (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: