Bitumen fumes: review of work on the potential risk to workers and the present knowledge on its origin

Sci Total Environ. 2002 Dec 2;300(1-3):37-49. doi: 10.1016/s0048-9697(02)00279-6.


Bitumens fumes contain polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC). There is a possibility of long-term health effects following chronic exposure by inhalation or skin contamination in asphalt road pavers and highway maintenance workers. Epidemiological and experimental studies on this topic are reviewed and the possible causes of cancer discussed with a primary focus on heterocyclic polyaromatic compounds. In 2001, the results of the IARC epidemiological study confirmed an excess of lung cancer despite a lower cancer mortality. In vitro genotoxicity and mechanistic studies demonstrated a mutagenic effect of bitumen fume condensates (BFC) and some data suggested that the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) analysed were not the major genotoxic compounds in bitumen fume condensates. Other compounds such as nitrogen-, sulfur- and/or oxygen-containing PAH or their alkyl substituted analogues, mutagenic in the Ames mutation assay, may be involved in the genotoxic effect of BFC. After skin painting with BFC, DNA adducts were found in skin, lung and lymphocytes of all the treated animals. Differences in the adduct patterns were also observed, but a more polar adduct was common to the three tissues and not observed in those from rats treated with coal-tar fume condensates (CTFC). Rat inhalation experiments with bitumen fumes confirmed the presence of a DNA-adduct in the lungs with the same Rf as the previous polar adduct. This adduct therefore merits further investigation as a potential biomarker in lymphocyte DNA to follow exposed workers. All the analytical data and the mechanistic data are complementary and suggest the potential role of thiophenes in the genotoxicity of bitumen fumes. Some thiophenes have lower mutagenic activity than their isosteric PAH, whereas others are very potent carcinogens. Generally, the sulfur analogues of PAH (SPAH) in bitumen fumes have a higher concentration than the PAH of similar molecular weight, whereas the SPAH in coal-tar fumes have a much lower concentration than the corresponding PAH. This may explain why the more polar adducts have been detected only in animals exposed to bitumen fume. In a skin carcinogenicity study of condensed asphalt roofing fumes, it has been demonstrated that the most active fractions were those containing a variety of aromatic SPAH. In conclusion to this review, there is an interest in determining the chemical identity of the major DNA adducts induced by BFC. This would allow experimental studies on the carcinogenic potency of these compounds and their validation as potential biomarkers. These compounds could thus merit further analytical investigation in preference to the PAH included in the list of the US Environmental Protection Agency that are currently being analysed by the industry in field studies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Cutaneous
  • Animals
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Carcinogenicity Tests
  • DNA Adducts*
  • DNA Damage
  • Humans
  • Hydrocarbons / adverse effects*
  • Inhalation Exposure*
  • Molecular Weight
  • Occupational Exposure*
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / adverse effects
  • Risk Assessment
  • Transportation


  • Biomarkers
  • DNA Adducts
  • Hydrocarbons
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • asphalt