Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), of which benzo[a]pyrene is a representative member, are combustion-related environmental pollutants and include known carcinogens. Laboratory animal studies indicate that the dose of PAHs to the fetus is on the order of a 10th that to the mother and that there is heightened susceptibility to PAH-induced carcinogenesis during the fetal and infancy periods. Carcinogen-DNA adducts, a measure of procarcinogenic genetic damage, are considered a biomarker of increased cancer risk. Here we compare the levels of benzo[a]pyrene-DNA adducts as a proxy for PAH-DNA damage measured in maternal blood and newborn cord blood obtained at delivery in four different populations of mothers (total of 867) and newborns (total of 822), representing a 30-fold range of exposure to ambient PAHs. The populations include residents in Northern Manhattan, participants in a study of the effects of the World Trade Center disaster, residents in Krakow, Poland, and residents in Tongliang, China. Mean adduct concentrations in both maternal and cord blood and the proportion of samples with detectable adducts, increased across the populations [Northern Manhattan < World Trade Center (WTC) < Krakow < Tongliang], consistent with the trend in estimated ambient exposure to PAHs (P < 0.001). For mothers, the means in the respective populations were Northern Manhattan (0.21 adducts per 108 nucleotides), WTC (0.23 adducts per 108 nucleotides), Krakow (0.28 adducts per 108 nucleotides), Tongliang (0.31 adducts per 108 nucleotides); the corresponding means in the newborns were Northern Manhattan (0.23), WTC (0.24), Krakow (0.29), Tongliang (0.31). The percentage of mothers with detectable levels of adducts in the respective populations were Northern Manhattan (36.8%), WTC (57.5%), Krakow (72.9%), Tongliang (73.4%); the corresponding percentages among the newborns were Northern Manhattan (42.4%), WTC (60.6%), Krakow (71.1%), Tongliang (79.5%). Despite the estimated 10-fold lower PAH dose to the fetus based on laboratory animal experiments, the adduct levels in the newborns were similar to or higher than in the mothers. This study suggests that the fetus may be 10-fold more susceptible to DNA damage than the mother and that in utero exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons may disproportionately increase carcinogenic risk. The data support preventive policies to limit PAH exposure to pregnant women and children.