Screening of asymptomatic individuals for colon malignancy has been advocated for the past 20 yr in the hopes of reducing colon cancer mortality. Although sigmoidoscopy is an important element of current screening recommendations, the sensitivity of this test in asymptomatic subjects has never been studied. The purpose of this study was to determine the prevalence and location of polyps and cancers in an asymptomatic population by performing full colonoscopy. We wished to assess the sensitivity of screening flexible sigmoidoscopy to 60 cm by determining how many patients with adenomas or cancer had "index" adenomatous polyps in the distal 60 cm. One hundred five healthy male outpatients, over 50 yr old, with negative examinations for occult blood in stools and no prior history of colon pathology, had full colonoscopy. Careful examination of the distal 60 cm was performed, followed by a full colon examination to the cecum. Forty-three patients (41%) had adenomatous polyps, and only 19 of these patients had an index adenomatous polyp in the distal 60 cm. Therefore, the sensitivity of sigmoidoscopy was 44%. The prevalence of adenomas increased with age. Patients were assigned to one of three groups based on the findings in the distal 60 cm. Group 1 (n = 65) had no polyps in the distal 60 cm, but 18 of these patients (28%) had adenomatous polyps in the proximal colon. Among 21 patients with only hyperplastic polyps in the distal 60 cm (group 2), six patients (29%) had proximal adenomas. In group 3, eight of 19 patients (42%) with adenomas in the distal 60 cm also had proximal adenomatous polyps. We conclude that adenomatous polyps are common in asymptomatic men who have negative tests for fecal occult blood. Sigmoidoscopy to 60 cm had a sensitivity of only 44% in this patient population, suggesting that this is an insensitive test for the detection of patients with adenomatous polyps.