The Jialu River, an important branch of the Huaihe River in China, was seriously polluted because of rapid economic growth and urbanization. In order to evaluate the potential for serious environmental consequences as a result of anthropogenic contamination, the distribution of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) has been investigated in surface sediment samples collected in connection with field surveys of 19 sites along the Jialu River. The total concentration of the 16 USEPA priority PAHs ranged from 466.0 to 2605.6 ng/g dry weight with a mean concentration of 1363.2 ng/g. Sediment samples with the highest PAH concentrations were from the upper reaches of the river, where Zhengzhou City is located; the PAH levels in the middle and lower reaches were relatively low. According to the observed molecular indices, PAHs originated largely from the high-temperature pyrolytic process. According to the numerical effect-based sediment quality guidelines (SQGs) of the United States, the levels of PAHs in the Jialu River should not exert adverse biological effects. The total benzo[a]pyrene toxicity equivalent (TEQ) values calculated for samples varied from 50.4 to 312.8 ng/g dry weight with an average of 167.4 ng/g. The relationships between PAHs and environmental factors, including chemical properties of sediments, water quality, aquatic organisms, hydrological conditions, and anthropogenic activities, are also discussed. PAHs exerted a potential negative impact on the benthos. Settlement percentage, population density and industrial GDP per capita had a significant influence on the distribution of PAHs.