The objective of this study was to describe the exposure of nonsmokers in the U.S. population to secondhand smoke (SHS) using serum cotinine concentrations measured over a period of 14 years, from October 1988 through December 2002. This study consists of a series of National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) measuring serum cotinine as an index of SHS exposure of participants. Study participants were individuals representative of the U.S. civilian, noninstitutionalized population, > or = 4 years of age. We analyzed serum cotinine and interview data from NHANES obtained during surveys conducted during four distinct time periods. Our results document a substantial decline of approximately 70% in serum cotinine concentrations in nonsmokers during this period. This decrease was reflected in all groups within the population regardless of age, sex, or race/ethnicity. The large decrease that we observed in serum cotinine concentrations suggests a substantial reduction in the exposure of the U.S. population to SHS during the 1990s. The exposure of nonsmokers to SHS represents an important public health concern. Our findings suggest that recent public health efforts to reduce such exposures have had an important effect, although children and non-Hispanic black nonsmokers show relatively higher levels of serum cotinine.