This work intended to explain the challenges of the fingerprints based source apportionment method for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in the aquatic environment, and to illustrate a practical and robust solution. The PAH data detected in the sediment cores from the Illinois River provide the basis of this study. Principal component analysis (PCA) separates PAH compounds into two groups reflecting their possible airborne transport patterns; but it is not able to suggest specific sources. Not all positive matrix factorization (PMF) determined sources are distinguishable due to the variability of source fingerprints. However, they constitute useful suggestions for inputs for a Bayesian chemical mass balance (CMB) analysis. The Bayesian CMB analysis takes into account the measurement errors as well as the variations of source fingerprints, and provides a credible source apportionment. Major PAH sources for Illinois River sediments are traffic (35%), coke oven (24%), coal combustion (18%), and wood combustion (14%). 2015 Published by Elsevier Ltd.