Naphthalene--an environmental and occupational toxicant

Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2003 Oct;76(8):556-76. doi: 10.1007/s00420-003-0458-1. Epub 2003 Aug 15.


For many years naphthalene had been considered as a non-carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH). Airborne naphthalene concentrations have always been observed to be below the limit values of various national committees, such as the threshold limit value (TLV) of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) and the MAK of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) (10 ppm). Since 2000, when the US National Toxicology Program revealed clear evidence of the carcinogenic activity of naphthalene in rats, international agencies [the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), DFG] have reclassified naphthalene as a potential human carcinogen, and the European Union (EU) is currently preparing a new risk assessment report. It is presently unknown how to protect humans from health risks resulting from occupational and environmental naphthalene exposure. Knowledge about the external and internal exposure of humans serves as the key determinant in a comprehensive risk assessment. We review here ambient monitoring studies concerning the external naphthalene exposure that results from ubiquitous environmental sources (indoor and outdoor air, water, soil, food) and from a variety of critical workplaces (coking plants, creosote impregnation, distillation of coal tar and naphthalene, manufacture of refractories, graphite electrodes, aluminium and mothballs). Based on results of ambient monitoring studies published so far, a new hygiene-based exposure limit of 1.5 mg naphthalene per cubic metre of air (0.3 ppm) is proposed. Furthermore, results from biological monitoring studies are summarised in this article. The internal burden was almost exclusively determined by means of the urinary metabolites 1-naphthol and 2-naphthol, but it is currently not possible for one to evaluate a biological tolerance level (BAT) or a biological exposure index (BEI). Based on the toxicokinetics and metabolism of naphthalene, the central question on its carcinogenicity is briefly sketched. Naphthoquinones play an important role in this context. Their adducts with macromolecules may be the parameters of choice for the estimation of effects to human health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Humans
  • Knowledge
  • Naphthalenes / metabolism
  • Naphthalenes / pharmacokinetics
  • Naphthalenes / poisoning*
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Occupational Exposure*
  • Pharmacokinetics
  • Public Policy
  • Reference Values
  • Risk Assessment
  • Workplace*


  • Naphthalenes
  • naphthalene