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Human exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) occurs through complex mixtures such as coal tar. The effect of complex PAH mixtures on the activation of carcinogenic PAH to DNA-binding derivatives and carcinogenesis were investigated in mice treated topically with NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) Standard Reference Material 1597 (SRM), a complex mixture of PAH extracted from coal tar, and either additional benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P) or dibenzo[a,l]pyrene (DB[a,l]P). In an initiation–promotion study using 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate as the promoter for 25 weeks, the SRM and B[a]P co-treated mice had a similar incidence of papillomas per mouse compared with the group exposed to B[a]P alone as the initiator. PAH–DNA adduct analysis of epidermal DNA by 33P-post-labeling and reversed-phase high-performance liquid chromatography found the SRM co-treatment led to a significant decrease in the total level of DNA adducts and B[a]P–DNA adducts to less than that observed in mice treated with B[a]P alone at 6, 12 and 72 h exposure. After 24 and 48 h exposure, there was no significant difference in the levels of adducts between these groups. In the DB[a,l]P initiation–promotion study, the co-treated group had significantly fewer papillomas per mouse than mice treated with DB[a,l]P alone as initiator. Averaging over the times of exposure gave strong evidence that mice co-treated with SRM and DB[a,l]P had a significantly lower level of PAH–DNA adducts than mice treated with DB[a,l]P alone. Western immunoblots showed that both cytochrome P450 (CYP) 1A1 and 1B1 were induced by the SRM. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that two major factors determining the carcinogenic activity of PAH within a complex mixture are (i) the persistence of certain PAH–DNA adducts as well as total adduct levels, and (ii) the ability of the components present in the mixture to inhibit the activation of carcinogenic PAH by the induced CYP enzymes.