Bitumen samples and fumes consist essentially of polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAH) and their derivatives, some of which are known to be carcinogenic or co-carcinogenic in animals. The level of total PAH is low when compared with coal-tar products. There is very limited data on possible health risk from exposure to bitumen fumes in workers. In this study, sister-chromatid exchange (SCE), micronuclei (MN) and high frequency of SCE cells (HFCs) were determined for 28 workers exposed to bitumen fumes and 28 control subjects. Urinary 1-hydroxypyrene (1-OHP) excretion was used as a biomarker of occupational exposure to PAH. The mean value of 1-OHP excretion of workers was 0.78 +/- 0.46 mu mol/mol creatinine and for controls 0.52 +/- 0.44 mu mol/mol creatinine (p < 0.05). The mean values of SCE per cell and the frequency (parts per thousand) of MN in peripheral lymphocytes from the workers and controls were 5.13 +/- 0.64, 4.71 +/- 0.67, and 2.25 +/- 0.42, 1.79 +/- 0.32 respectively (p < 0.05, p < 0.0001). The mean value of HFCs for workers and controls were 7.85 +/- 2.3 and 7.05 +/- 3.16, respectively (p > 0.05). Our data reveal that bitumen fumes during road paving operations are absorbed by workers and that bitumen fume exposure is able to significantly induce cytogenetic damage in peripheral lymphocytes of workers after controlling some possible confounding factors, such as age, sex and smoking habits. (C) 1998 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.