Barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) was used to assess plant-availability, tissue-concentration and genotoxicity of mercury from the solid waste deposits of a chloralkali plant. Seeds of H. vulgare, presoaked in distilled water, were allowed to germinate and grow on agricultural soil mixed with solid waste containing 2550+/-339 mg Hg kg(-1) at different proportions (0.75, 1.5, 2.5 and 5%). Plants raised from germinating seeds on uncontaminated agricultural soil served as controls. On day 7, germination counts and seedling heights were recorded. The concentration of mercury in soil, and plant tissue (dry weight) were determined at different stages of plant growth from day 7 till maturity and harvest. The availability of mercury from the soil was assessed by extracting mercury at a range of pH values (2-6) and by chemical methods. The embryonic shoots excised at 36 h of germination were subjected to cytological analysis to determine mitotic index and frequency of mitoses with chromosomal aberrations. The pollen mother cells from anthers of young M1-spikes were analysed to score meiotic aberrations. Subsequently, the pollen fertility and seed set were determined. Furthermore, M2-seedlings were analysed for chlorophyll-deficient mutations. The cytogenetic analysis revealed the effects of mercury on the mitotic and meiotic chromosomes which were significantly correlated with soil-mercury. The bioconcentration of mercury in aerial tissues decreased with the age of the plant. Roots, in particular, were found to concentrate most of the mercury taken up by the plant. At the time of harvest, the bioconcentration of mercury in straw was at a minimum. The accumulation of mercury in grain, which was significant, did not increase with the increase in concentration of mercury in soil but maintained a plateau, indicating a restriction of transport of mercury through the phloem. The unique advantage with the use of Hordeum assay is that, besides assessing the germline toxicity, the assay takes into account the possible contamination of the agricultural food-chain.