The relationship between rheumatoid factors (RF) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) was studied in the Mini-Finland Health Survey. This covered a representative sample of the Finnish population over 30 years of age, initially comprising 8,000 persons, of whom 7,217 participated in the field survey carried out in 1978-80. The participants were followed using record linkage with the Social Insurance Institution's population register to identify patients entitled to free medication. Until the end of 1988, 21 persons had developed new seropositive RA. In 15 cases, preillness specimens contained elevated levels (greater than or equal to 20 IU/ml) of RF. In the remaining 6 cases with RF negative preillness specimens, the interval from taking the blood specimen to the onset of disease was 4 years or more. RF represent a key element in the rheumatoid inflammatory process. Their occurrence in preillness specimens suggests that they may have a primary role in the pathogenesis of the disease.