Combined effects of contaminant desorption and toxicity on risk from PAH contaminated sediments

Leslie M. Shor, David S. Kosson, Karl J. Rockne, Lily Y. Young, Gary L. Taghon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


A strong inverse correlation was observed between the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) mass fraction desorbed, a surrogate measure of bioavailability, and relative carcinogenicity, as quantified by potency equivalency factors (PEFs), for two study sediments from the New York/New Jersey Harbor estuary. Because compounds with the highest toxicity, such as dibenz(a,h)anthracene and benzo(a)pyrene (BAP), also tended to be the least rapidly and least extensively desorbed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) default guidance may dramatically overestimate risk from exposure to PAH-contaminated soils or sediments. A "relative risk index" (RRI) was developed to account for the combined effects of compound-specific bioavailability and toxic potency in estimating excess cancer risk. Using this approach, estimated excess cancer risk may be diminished by as much as a factor of 159 times versus default EPA guidance. Also, the hierarchy of estimated risk between study sediments and among treatment fractions of study sediments differed using the two approaches, implying that the default approach may inaccurately determine site clean-up priorities. The percentage contribution of each potentially carcinogenic priority PAH to total excess cancer risk was computed under various scenarios. In each case, the contribution of BAP to total excess cancer risk was remarkably invariable, for example, ranging from 48% to 52% in one sediment, and 44% to 54% in the other, over four different exposure durations. These results suggest that BAP may be an excellent indexing compound for gauging relative exposure risk across sediments. Other important contributors to total excess cancer risk were benz(a)anthracene and dibenz(a,h)anthracene. Together, these three compounds comprised nearly 90% of total excess cancer risk from all PAHs in every scenario. This integrated RRI approach may enable regulators to more accurately gauge relative risks and make more informed sediment management decisions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1109-1120
Number of pages12
JournalRisk Analysis
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • Physiology (medical)


  • Bioavailability
  • Cancer endpoints
  • Exposure assessment
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Potency equivalency factors (PEFs)


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