Estriol-3-sulfate (E3S) is present in human breast cyst fluid (BCF) in median levels of 8.7-10.4 nmol/L, yet is barely detectable in the serum (less than 0.034 nmol/L). The source of this huge concentration of E3S is unknown. It may accumulate from blood by active transport or be synthesized and concentrated within the cyst. Since estrone sulfate (E1S) and its possible precursor, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) are elevated in BCF, E3S may originate via 16 alpha-hydroxylation of E1S. The present study examined the correlations between the levels of DHEAS and E1S with those of E3S in BCF. The sodium and potassium ions were also quantified and related to the steroid concentrations. By linear regression analysis of log-normalized data there was a highly significant correlation between the concentrations of E1S and E3S (n = 355, r = 0.690, P less than 0.001) and between DHEAS and E3S (n = 361, r = 0.577, P less than 0.001). The BCF were classified according to their K/Na ion ratios: type 1, greater than 1.0, type II, less than 0.25, and type III, 0.25-1.0. By Student's t test, the concentrations of E3S differed between each BCF Type (P less than 0.002). This was also true for E1S and DHEAS. Type 1 cysts were associated with the highest estrogen sulfate levels and type II with the lowest levels. The possible physiological importance of this observation resides in reports that the BCF type expressing the highest steroid concentrations has been related to an aporcine-like epithelial lining of the cyst wall and a somewhat higher risk for developing breast cancer. The results suggest that E3S in BCF may originate from E1S, but alternate mechanisms are not precluded.