The levels and distribution of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were investigated in global background soil samples. Total PAH concentrations (sum of 15 compounds) ranged over 5 orders of magnitude, from <1 to 7,840 (mean 328) ng g-1 dry weight. The order was generally Europe > North America > Asia > Oceania > Africa > South America. Proximity to long-term emissions sources and locations susceptible to high atmospheric depositional inputs tended to have higher concentrations. A broad positive correlation was obtained between population density and soil PAH concentrations (i.e. source-related factors). However, concentrations were also influenced by the holding capacity of the soils (i.e. sink-related factors) with statistically significant correlations observed between PAHs and soil organic matter (SOM), and black carbon (BC).