Two isothiocyanates (ITCs) commonly found in human diet, allyl isothiocyanate (AITC) and phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC), were tested for genotoxic effects in a battery of assays: Salmonella/microsome assay with TA 98 and TA 100, differential DNA repair assay with E. coli and micronucleus (MN) induction assay with human derived Hep G2 cells. Albeit to a different degree, both ITCs induced genotoxic effects in all test systems. AITC was more genotoxic in bacterial test systems than in Hep G2 cells; in contrast, the effect of PEITC was stronger in Hep G2 cells. In in vivo assays with E. coli indicators in which mice were exposed to relatively high doses of the compounds (90 and 270 mg/kg), AITC induced moderate but significant effects; PEITC failed to induce significant effects in any of the organs. To find out the reason for the weak genotoxicity of AITC and PEITC under in vivo test conditions, we exposed E. coli indicator cells to the test substances in the absence or presence of rat liver homogenate (with and without cofactors), bovine serum albumin (BSA) and human saliva. All of them markedly attenuated the genotoxicity of AITC and PEITC, implying that the test substances are detoxified by direct non-enzymatic binding to proteins. Additional experiments carried out on the mechanistic aspects of AITC and PEITC-induced genotoxicity showed that the compounds induce the formation of thiobarbituric acid reactive substances (TBARS) in Hep G2 cells. Furthermore, in in vitro assays with E. coli, radical scavengers reduced the differential DNA damage induced by AITC and PEITC. The latter two findings give a clue that reactive oxygen species might be involved in the genotoxic effect of the ITCs. Although ITCs have been repeatedly advocated as very promising anticancer agents, the data presented here indicate that the compounds are genotoxic, and probably carcinogenic, in their own right.