Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a class of widespread environmental carcinogens. Most of our knowledge of their mechanisms of metabolic activation to DNA-binding "ultimate carcinogenic" metabolites has come from analysis of the DNA interaction products formed by these highly reactive intermediates. Studies of their role in forming DNA-binding intermediates identical to those formed in vivo from the PAH itself have also allowed identification of the particular cytochrome P450 enzymes involved in activating various structural classes of carcinogenic PAHs. It has been established that PAHs, after metabolic activation in vivo, are capable of inducing mutations in oncogenes and, by inducing multiple mutations, may result in tumors. PAHs also cause changes in cellular gap-junction communication similar to those caused by the tumor promoter 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate. Thus, PAHs may also act through a promotional mechanism in addition to serving as tumor initiators. Previous studies on these mechanisms are described and summarized.