In order to assess the uptake of benzene from environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) and to estimate its contribution to the total body burden of benzene observed in non-smokers, two experimental studies have been conducted. Controlled exposure to high levels of ETS equivalent to 10 ppm CO for 9 h and 20 ppm for 8 h resulted in a nonsignificant increase in blood benzene levels and a significant increase in exhaled CO, COHb and cotinine in serum and urine. The slightly rising blood concentration of benzene following experimental ETS exposure was paralleled by an increased exhalation of benzene and aromatic hydrocarbons and in contrast to blood levels, this increase was significant. The blood levels of benzene obtained during exposure were comparable to those observed at the time of admission to the laboratory, when biomarkers of ETS uptake, e.g. cotinine in serum and urine, were at the limit of detection, thus demonstrating that these background levels were not from ETS exposure. No difference in the urinary excretion of phenol, the main metabolite of benzene, was found during the experimental periods. The background levels of urinary phenol in unexposed nonsmokers were rather high, demonstrating that phenol excreted in urine must be formed from several endogenous and exogenous precursors. In the light of our findings it is highly questionable whether exposure to benzene from ETS under real life conditions poses a cancerogenic risk to the general population, which is measurable today or in the future by toxicological or epidemiological methods.