BACKGROUND: The highest rates of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC) in Brazil occur in Rio Grande do Sul, the most southern state, which has incidence rates of 20.4/100,000/year for men and 6.5/100,000/year for women. Exposure to carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) through tobacco smoke and other sources may increase the risk of ESCC. The aims of the current study were to investigate the degree and sources of PAH exposure of the inhabitants of this region of southern Brazil. METHODS: Two hundred healthy adults (half smokers, half non smokers, half male and half female) were recruited, given a standardized questionnaire, and asked to provide a urine sample for measurement of 1-hydroxypyrene glucuronide (1-OHPG), a PAH metabolite). Urine 1-OHPG concentrations were measured using immunoaffinity chromatography and synchronous fluorescence spectroscopy and urine cotinine was measured using a dipstick test. We examined factors associated with 1-OHPG concentration using Wilcoxon tests and multiple linear regression. RESULTS: Urine 1-hydroxypyrene glucuronide (1-OHPG) was successfully measured on 199 subjects. The median (interquartile range) of urine 1-OHPG in the 199 participants was 2.09 pmol/mL (0.51, 5.84). Tobacco smoke exposure and maté drinking were statistically significantly associated with higher urine 1-OHPG concentrations in the multivariate linear regression model. CONCLUSION: Tobacco smoke and maté both contribute to high levels of benzo[a]pyrene exposure in the people of southern Brazil. This high PAH exposure may contribute to the high rates of ESCC observed in this population. The increased urine 1-OHPG concentrations associated with maté suggest that contaminants, not just thermal injury, may help explain the increased risk of ESCC previously reported for maté consumption.