A case control design has been used to investigate risk factors associated with the development of cervical squamous intraepithelial lesions (SIL) in a population of urban women in which non-affluent minority groups were heavily represented. Eighty-five women with histologically confirmed SIL were compared to a control group of 70 cytologically normal women. HPV infection was determined using both Southern blot hybridization and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification specific for HPV types 16, 18, and 33. When Southern blot was used to detect HPV, logistic regression analysis identified HPV infection (odds ratio (OR) = 17.9, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 6.2-51.6) and low educational achievement (OR = 3.4, 95% CI = 1.2-10.1) as major independent risk factors. When PCR was employed to detect HPV, the logistic regression model suggested that HPV infection (OR = 10.4, 95% CI = 3.6-30.4) and Hispanic ethnicity (OR = 5.0, 95% CI = 1.2-20.5) represented independent risk factors; low educational achievement and Black ethnicity were risk factors of borderline significance. PCR detection of simultaneous co-infection with more than one HPV type was associated with a very high risk of SIL (OR for one type = 7.2, 95% CI = 2.4-21.9; OR for greater than I type = 43.0, 95% CI = 6.9-266.6). Furthermore, increased viral load determined by either method carried an increased risk of disease. HPV infection with viral types previously reported to be related to neoplastic or dysplastic lesions carried the highest risk of SIL. The association of HPV detected by Southern blot and SIL in women less than 35 years old had an OR of 10.1, whereas in women greater than or equal to 35 the OR was 74.5 (p = 0.09 for homogeneity of ORs). We conclude that infection with HPV is the major risk factor for cervical SIL and suggest that targeted HPV screening of women over age 35 may represent an innovative strategy to detect women at high risk of cervical neoplasia.