Introduction The content of 16 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) was determined in 60 samples from three environmental matrices (soils, sediments, and pine needles) in an effort to assess their distribution on a river basin scale. Methods A sampling campaign was carried out in 2006, selecting urban, industrial, and agricultural sampling sites along the northeast of Spain. Techniques used included pressurized liquid extraction and solid-liquid ultrasonic extraction followed by gas chromatography-electron impact ionization mass spectrometry. Results The mean total PAHs concentrations were 290<613<1,628 ng/g (dry weight) in pine needles, soil, and sediments, respectively. There is a good correspondence between the total concentration of soils and pine needles, as opposed to the levels between sediments and pine needles. The high concentrations found in some Pinus halepensis samples may reflect a superior uptake potential of this species in comparison to the others studied. The three matrices present a very different PAH distribution pattern, with pine needles showing a predominance of the lighter (2-, 3-, and 4-ring) PAHs, whereas 5- and 6-ring PAHs are the most abundant in soils. Sediments display a more heterogeneous pattern, with contributions of all the PAHs but different distribution depending on the site, suggesting a wider range of input sources. Established PAH molecular ratios and principal component analysis were used to identify the origins and profiles of PAHs. While sediments showed a wide range attributed to historical inputs, soils and pine needles confirmed the compartmentalization of the PAHs, with lighter airborne PAHs accumulated in pine needles and heavier ones in soils. Conclusions It can be suggested that the monitoring of several matrices is a strong tool to elucidate the contamination sources and accumulation patterns of PAHs. However, given the influence of the matrix type on this assessment, the information should be considered complementary, yet allowing a more comprehensive depiction of the area in question.
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