Estrogens are associated with several cancers in humans and are known to induce tumors in rodents. In this review a mechanism of carcinogenesis by estrogens is discussed which features the following key events: (1) Steroid estrogens are metabolized by estrogen 2- and 4-hydroxylases to catecholestrogens. Target organs of estrogen-induced carcinogenesis, hamster kidney or mouse uterus, contain high levels of estrogen 4-hydroxylase activity. Since the methylation of 4-hydroxyestradiol by catechol-O-methyltransferase is inhibited by 2-hydroxyestradiol, it is proposed that a build up of 4-hydroxyestrogens precedes estrogen-induced cancer. (2) The catecholestrogen or diethylstilbestrol (DES) are oxidized to semiquinones and quinones by the peroxidatic activity of cytochrome P-450. The quinones are proposed to be (the) reactive intermediates of estrogen metabolism. (3) The quinones may be reduced to catecholestrogens and DES and redox cycling may ensue. Redox cycling of estrogens has been shown to generate free radicals which may react to form the organic hydroperoxides needed as cofactors for oxidation to quinones. (4) The quinone metabolites of catechol estrogens and of DES bind covalently to DNA in vitro whereas DNA binding in vivo has only been examined for DES. When DES is administered to hamsters, the resulting DES-DNA adduct profile in liver, kidney, or other organs closely matches that of DES quinone-DNA adducts in vitro. In vitro, DES-DNA adducts are chemically unstable and are generated in incubations with organic hydroperoxide as cofactor. It is proposed that the instability of adducts and the lower sensitivity of previous assay methods contributed to the reported failures to detect adducts. Steroid estrogen-DNA adducts in vivo are currently under investigation. (5) Tumors are postulated to arise in cells rapidly proliferating due to the growth stimulus provided by the estrogenic activity of the primary estrogen or of hormonally potent metabolites such as 4-hydroxyestradiol. The covalent modification of DNA in these cells is temporary because of the chemical instability of adducts and will result in altered genetic messages in daughter cells, whereas in non-proliferating cells there may be no lasting genetic damage. The sequence of events described above is a plausible mechanism for tumor initiation by estrogens and is partially substantiated by experimental evidence obtained in vitro and/or in vivo.