Human impacts on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon distribution in Chinese intertidal zones


The intertidal zone—a transitional boundary between terrestrial and marine environments—has important ecological functions, and receives polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from human activities, but how and to what extent anthropogenic factors influence the distribution of PAHs in this important niche remain largely unknown. Here we measured the distribution of United States Environmental Protection Agency priority PAHs in samples of intertidal sediments from across more than 4,500 km of China’s coastline. The total PAH concentrations ranged from 2.3 to 1,031.7 ng g−1 sediment (dry weight) and all PAHs showed positive correlations with total organic carbon (TOC). TOC-normalized high-molecular-weight (HMW) PAH concentrations, but not TOC-normalized low-molecular-weight (LMW) PAHs, were positively correlated with TOC. Moreover, population size and economic development influenced TOC-normalized HMW PAH concentrations, whereas urbanization had a major influence on TOC-normalized LMW PAHs. Human activities also indirectly influenced TOC-normalized PAH concentrations by affecting TOC. In sum, our investigation provides continental-scale evidence that human activities have key and differential effects on the distribution and deposition of PAHs in intertidal sediments, and shows that pollution status and profile of PAHs can be used to index regional industrialization and urbanization status.

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Fig. 1: Sampling sites and PAH concentrations.
Fig. 2: Relationships between PAH concentrations and TOC.
Fig. 3: Distribution of molecular diagnostic ratios and energy consumption.
Fig. 4: Structural equation models showing the direct and indirect effects of TOC, climate factors and anthropogenic factors on TOC-normalized PAH concentrations.

Data availability

The data supporting the findings of this study are summarized in the Supplementary Information, and any other data analysed in the current study are available from the corresponding author upon request.


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This work was supported by the Basic Special Program of the Ministry of Science and Technology, China (2014FY210600), National Natural Science Foundation of China (41601525, 21677167 and 21976209), the Thousand Young Talents Program of China, Natural Science Foundation of Shandong Province (ZR2016DB07) and the Taishan Scholar Project Special Funding (ts20190962). We thank W. T. Shang, B. Hong and L. M. Liu for their help with data processing.

Author information




L.C., C.L. and D.L. designed the experiments. D.L. and D.W. collected the sediment samples and analysed sediment properties. C.L., M.L. and X.L. performed PAH analysis. M.L. collected anthropogenic and climatic parameters, analysed the data and wrote the original draft. G.Z. and G.J. provided experimental support and revision suggestions. All authors contributed extensively to conducting the experiments and revising the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Chunyang Liao or Dongyan Liu or Lingxin Chen.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, discussion, Tables 1–17, Figs. 1–7 and references.

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Lv, M., Luan, X., Liao, C. et al. Human impacts on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon distribution in Chinese intertidal zones. Nat Sustain 3, 878–884 (2020).

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