The clastogenic potential of the phytoestrogens coumoestrol (COUM), genistein (GEN) and daidzein (DAI) has been studied in human peripheral blood lymphocytes in vitro. After exposure of the cultured lymphocytes to 50 to 75 microM COUM or 25 microM GEN for 6 h, a clear induction of structural chromosomal aberrations was observed by cytogenetic analysis. The major alterations were chromatid breaks, gaps and interchanges. In contrast, DAI did not induce chromosome aberrations even at 100 microM. These results, together with previously published reports on the induction of micronuclei and DNA strand breaks in cultured Chinese hamster V79 cells by COUM and GEN, but not DAI, suggest that some but not all phytoestrogens have the potential for genetic toxicity.