The incidence of breast cancer in women has increased dramatically over the last decade. Epidemiological markers of this increased incidence include: endocrine related phenomena (early menarche, age of first parity and age of menopause); exposure of the breast to X-radiation; and a group of seemingly disparate factors--urban residence, dietary selection and alcohol consumption. Although experimental breast cancer may be induced by estrogenic hormones, X-radiation and aromatic hydrocarbons, only aromatic hydrocarbons have not been previously implicated in human mammary carcinogenesis. The seemingly unrelated human factors can best be understood by examining the role of breast tissue in aromatic hydrocarbon metabolism. Aromatic hydrocarbons are important environmental chemicals produced by the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons for use in energy production. Benzene, benz(a)pyrene, dibenz(ah)anthracene and 1-nitropyrene, known experimental breast carcinogens, are produced in this way. Human exposure to aromatic hydrocarbon metabolites induces and promotes altered DNA by mechanisms described as increased intracellular pro-oxidant production as well as direct adduction to DNA. The breast is anatomically embedded in a major fat depot which stores and concentrates aromatic hydrocarbons and can metabolize these hydrocarbons to carcinogenic metabolites. Ductal cells concentrate these metabolites and themselves become target cells for carcinogenesis. Some lifestyle factors increase the amount of carcinogens produced or enhance their activity. A unitary model for mammary carcinogenesis in humans as well as in experimental carcinogenesis is hypothesized. If correct, the hypothesis would account for some of the increase in breast cancer incidence in industrial countries--and would suggest environmental and dietary modifications that would inhibit hydrocarbon induced mammary carcinogenesis.