The widespread use of chemotherapy in the treatment of cancer has led to anxiety about the possible hazards to staff involved in the preparation and administration of cytotoxic agents. Careless handling of antineoplastic drugs may lead to exposure in detectable amounts by means of chemical or biological methods in the body fluids or cell samples but the information about the mutagenic effects of these agents on nurses is limited and inconsistent, DNA damage in peripheral lymphocytes of 30 professional nurses employed in the oncology departments for at least 6 months were examined by the alkaline single cell gel electrophoresis, 'COMET' technique. The results were compared to that of 30 controls with comparable age, sex and smoking habits, not practising in the chemotherapy services. Work characteristics of the exposed nurses and the use of personal protective equipment were also investigated. The DNA damage observed in the lymphocytes of the nurses was significantly higher than the controls (p < 0.001). The observed DNA damage was found to be significantly lower (p < 0.001) in nurses applying the necessary individual safety protections during their work. Cigarette smoking was not related to increases in DNA damage, also a significant association was not found between the duration of occupational exposure to antineoplastic drugs and the DNA damage. (C) 1999 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.