A high gastric cancer mortality in Fujian province (Peoples Republic of China) has been associated with the consumption of certain salted fermented fish products such as fish sauce (FS). We have investigated the levels and nature of N-nitroso compounds (NOC) and genotoxins present, before and after nitrosation, in 49 FS samples collected from villages in this high-risk area, pooled into six samples. The concentrations of total NOC before nitrosation ranged from 0.2 to 16 mumoles/l, and after nitrosation at pH 2 and pH 7, they rose by up to 4800- and 100-fold, respectively. In nitrosated samples, 40-50% of total NOC was not extractable into organic solvents; volatile N nitrosamines accounted for 1-2% and N-nitrosamino acids for 8-16% of total NOC. None of the FS samples exhibited genotoxic activity, but after nitrosation all were weakly active in the SOS chromotest. The highest SOS-inducing potency was observed with nitrosated ethyl acetate extracts of most samples. The formation of methylating agents was measured by incubation of nitrosated FS with DNA and subsequent analysis of 7-methylguanine adduct. 2 of the 6 nitrosated FS samples caused a slight increase in DNA methylation. 1 pooled home-made FS sample (the only one tested) contained tumour promoter-like substances, as measured by expression of certain EBV genes in Raji cells. HPLC fractionation of ethyl acetate extracts of FS samples allowed identification of three UV-absorbing peaks that, upon nitrosation, produced direct-acting genotoxins. This genotoxicity was partly ascribed to the formation of nitrite-derived arene diazonium cations that were characterized by a coupling reaction with N-ethyl-1-naphthylamine and thin-layer chromatography.