The effect of eight polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) on the seed emergence and early life-stage growth of three terrestrial plants (Sinapsis alba, Trifolium pratense and Lolium perenne) were studied in a greenhouse, using a Danish agricultural soil with an organic carbon content of 1.6%. After three weeks of exposure, seed emergence and seedling weight (fresh weight and dry weight) were determined. Exposure concentrations were verified with chemical analysis. The substances tested were four polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (fluoranthene, pyrene, phenanthrene and fluorene), the N-, S-, and O-substituted analogues of fluorene (carbazole, dibenzothiophene and dibenzofuran, respectively), and the quinoline representative acridine. Seedling growth was a far more sensitive endpoint than seed emergence for all substances. Concentrations estimated to give a 20%, reduction of seedling fresh weight (EC20-values) ranged from 36 to 290 mg kg(-1) for carbazole, 43 to 93 mg kg(-1) for dibenzofuran, 37 to I 10 mg kg(-1) for dibenzothiophene, 140 to 650 mg kg(-1) for fluoranthene, 55 to 380 mg kg(-1) for fluorene, 37 to 300 mg kg(-1) for phenanthrene, and 49 to 1300 mg kg(-1) for pyrene. For acridine, no toxicity was observed within the concentration range tested (1-1000 mg kg(-1)). As illustrated by the EC20-values, there was a rather large difference in sensitivity between the species, and T pratense was the most sensitive of the species tested. (C) 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.