A number of highly toxic environmental pollutants including certain polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDD), polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDF), and 'dioxin-like' polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) are among the most potent agonists of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR). Induction of cytochrome P4501A1 (CYP1A1) in mammalian cell culture is widely used as a functional parameter for AHR activation providing an estimate for 'dioxin-like' inducing equivalents in extracts from environmental samples. Since a number of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) also act as AHR-agonists, the CYP1A1-inducing potencies, measured as induction of 7-ethoxyresorufin O-deethylase (EROD) activity in rat hepatocyte cultures were analyzed for 16 PAHs frequently present in environmental samples. Among these, seven PAHs including benzo[a]pyrene were relatively potent inducers allowing the determination of Induction Equivalency Factors (IEF). For three PAHs including benzo[k]fluoranthene which acted as weak inducers, IEFs were estimated, while six PAHs including acenaphthylene were classified as inactive. Based on different efficacies the concentration-response characteristics of CYP1A1 induction were analyzed in more detail for benzo[a]pyrene, benzo[k]fluoranthene, and acenaphthylene. Benzo[k]fluoranthene was markedly less effective than benzo[a]pyrene as inducer of EROD activity but even more effective than benzo[a]pyrene as inducer of CYP1A1 protein and mRNA. Acenaphthylene was highly more effective on the level of mRNA than on the levels of protein or EROD activity. Further analysis revealed that the low efficacy of acenaphthylene as inducer of CYP1A1 protein and EROD activity is due to its marked cytotoxicity while no clear-cut explanation was found for the differences in efficacy between benzo[k]fluoranthene and benzo[a]pyrene. The EROD-inducing potency of a mixture of 16 PAH was about 2-fold higher than that calculated on the basis of IEFs of the individual constituents of the mixture.