Abstract Studies were undertaken to determine the role of surface oxygen complexes and metals on activated carbon on adsorption of selected aromatics. Three kinds of activated carbons (F400, MP and Darco G60) were used in the study. The F400 carbon was treated by oxygenation, deoxygenation and HCl-washing processes. Batch adsorption tests were used to evaluate the effects of surface oxygen complexes and metals on adsorption of phenol under oxic and anoxic conditions. The isotherm results showed that the removal of hydrophilic structures (carboxylic acid groups) of activated carbon increased physisorption and surface polymerization of phenol. It was also found that the metal (Fe) itself can not catalyze the surface polymerization of phenol on the carbon surface at room temperature. The findings of this study suggest that the life of a regenerated carbon adsorption bed could be extended by removing the metal content in activated carbon, and mildly oxidizing the surface.