Leukemia is one of the cancers most susceptible to induction by ionizing radiation, but the effects of lower doses delivered over time have not been quantified adequately. After the Chornobyl (Chernobyl) accident in Ukraine in April 1986, several hundred thousand workers who were involved in cleaning up the site and its surroundings received fractionated exposure, primarily from external gamma radiation. To increase our understanding of the role of protracted low-dose radiation exposure in the etiology of leukemia, we conducted a nested case-control study of leukemia in a cohort of cleanup workers identified from the Chornobyl State Registry of Ukraine. The analysis is based on 71 cases of histologically confirmed leukemia diagnosed in 1986-2000 and 501 age- and residence-matched controls selected from the same cohort. Study subjects or their proxies were interviewed about their cleanup activities and other relevant factors. Individual bone marrow radiation doses were estimated by the RADRUE dose reconstruction method (mean dose = 76.4 mGy, SD = 213.4). We used conditional logistic regression to estimate leukemia risks. The excess relative risk (ERR) of total leukemia was 3.44 per Gy [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.47-9.78, P < 0.01]. The dose response was linear and did not differ significantly by calendar period of first work in the 30-km Chornobyl zone, duration or type of work. We found a similar dose-response relationship for chronic and non-chronic lymphocytic leukemia [ERR = 4.09 per Gy (95% CI < 0-14.41) and 2.73 per Gy (95% CI < 0-13.50), respectively]. To further clarify these issues, we are extending the case-control study to ascertain cases for another 6 years (2001-2006).