The purpose of this review is to provide an account of our present knowledge about the epidemiology of nonmedullary thyroid carcinoma, to discuss the effects of environment, lifestyle and radiation on the risk of developing thyroid cancer, and to discuss aspects on primary prevention of the disease. In areas not associated with nuclear fallout, the annual incidence of thyroid cancer ranges between 2.0-3.8 cases per 100,000 in women and 1.2-2.6 per 100,000 in men, women of childbearing age being at highest risk. Low figures are found in some European countries (Denmark, Holland, Slovakia) and high figures are found in Iceland and Hawaii. Differences in iodine intake may be one factor explaining the geographic variation, high iodine intake being associated with a slightly increased risk of developing thyroid cancer. In general, lifestyle factors have only a small effect on the risk of thyroid cancer, a possible protective effect of tobacco smoking has been recently reported. Because of the (small) increase in risk of thyroid cancer associated with iodination programs, these should be supervised, so that the population does not receive excess iodine. The thyroid gland is highly sensitive to radiation-induced oncogenesis. This is verified by numerous reports from survivors after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Nevada, Novaja Semlja and Marshal Island atmospheric tests, and the Chernobyl plant accident, as well as by investigations of earlier medical use of radiation for benign diseases in childhood. These reports are summarized in the review. There appears to be a dose-response relation for the risk of developing cancer after exposure to radioactive radioiodine. The thyroid gland of children is especially vulnerable to the carcinogenic action of ionizing radiation. Thus, the incidence of thyroid cancer in children in the Belarus area was less than 1 case per million per year before the Chernobyl accident, increasing to a peak exceeding 100 per million per year in certain areas after the accident. It is a social obligation of scientists to inform the public and politicians of these risks. All nuclear power plants should have a program in operation for stockpiling potassium iodide for distribution within 1-2 days after an accident.