In an attempt to explain the discrepancy between the high number of patients said to be at risk of aspiration pneumonitis and the low reported incidence of this anaesthetic complication, 100 ASA physical status I-II elective surgical patients were studied. The volume of fluid present in the stomach at the time of induction of anaesthesia was correlated with gastroesophageal reflux (GER) detected by visual inspection of the pharynx and by continuous measurement of upper oesophageal pH. Mean gastric volume was 30 +/- 28 ml (range 0-210 ml). Gastric fluid volume greater than or equal to 0.4 ml.kg-1 at pH less than or equal to 2.5 was present in 46 patients. No GER was detected during induction of anaesthesia in our sample of 100 patients. Furthermore, patient age, duration of preoperative fasting, body mass index, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, preoperative anxiety, and a history of preoperative GER were not correlated with significant modifications of gastric volume or pH. We conclude that the low incidence of aspiration pneumonitis in elective surgical patients may be explained in part by the very low risk of GER, despite gastric fluid volumes of more than 0.4 ml.kg-1 in a high proportion of this patient population.