Because of the widespread use of pesticides for domestic and industrial applications the evaluation of their genotoxic effects is of major concern to public health. Although various experimental data have provided evidence that pesticides can possess genotoxic properties in animals and in in vitro test systems after acute and chronic exposure, the information on the genotoxic effects of some of pesticides is limited and inconsistent. In the present study, the genotoxic potential of commonly used pesticides (i.e., dimethoate and methyl parathion from the organophosphate class, propoxur and pirimicarb from carbamates, and cypermethrin and permethrin from pyrethroids) have been evaluated. The genotoxic effects of these substances were examined using the single cell gel electrophoresis (comet) assay in freshly isolated human peripheral lymphocytes. The cells were incubated with 10, 50, 100 and 200 mu g/ml concentrations of the test substances for 0.5h at 37 degrees C and DNA damage was compared with that obtained in lymphocytes from the same donor not treated with substances. Hydrogen peroxide, 100 mu M, was used as a positive control. Within the concentration ranges studied, no significant cytotoxic effects were observed. Dimethoate and methyl parathion at 100 and 200 mu g/ml; propoxur at 50, 100 and 200 mu g/ml, and pirimicarb, cypermethrin and permethrin at 200 mu g/ml significantly increased DNA damage in human lymphocytes.