Abstract Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and induction of the P450 reporter gene system (RGS) for 6- and 16-h exposure periods were determined in organic extracts of Ulsan Bay (South Korea) sediments to assess the utility of this bioassay as a screening tool for PAH contamination. The sum of the concentrations of 23 individual PAHs in 30 sediment samples (ΣPAH) based on GC–MS analysis ranged from 0.05 to 6.1 μg/g dry wt. P450 RGS fold induction ranged from 4.0 to 320 μg/g based on benzo[ a]pyrene toxic equivalents (BaPEq). P450 RGS BaPEq and the ‘chemical BaPEq’, defined as the sum of the products of individual PAH concentrations and pre-determined toxic equivalency factors, exhibited very strong positive correlations with ΣPAH ( r 2>0.90; P<0.001). Fold induction did not increase (and in some cases decreased) after the optimal incubation period (6 h) for PAHs, indicating that other compounds known to induce the P450 RGS (e.g. chlorinated organics) were not present at levels effecting significant induction. This was supported by GC–ECD analysis where non-ortho and mono-ortho polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) known to be strong P450 RGS inducers were found to be at very low or non-detectable levels in samples with the highest P450 RGS responses. The profound difference in PAH profiles for the two most contaminated sites suggested that this assay is especially sensitive for selected PAHs with greater than four rings. Combined with previous results, the P450 RGS shows promise as a useful screening tool for predicting deleterious biological effects resulting from CYP1A1-inducing, sediment-associated chemicals, particularly high molecular weight PAHs.