The aim of the present study was to evaluate the effectiveness of single-energy computed tomography in determining iron overload in idiopathic hemochromatosis, with special reference to slightly overloaded cases. Liver attenuation was determined in 100 patients (46 cases of idiopathic hemochromatosis, 32 cases of chronic liver disease, and 22 normal controls). The iron load was determined for the first two groups by biochemical determination of liver iron concentration (performed in all but 12 subjects in the chronic liver disease group) and hepatic histologic grading. The main results for liver attenuation (upper normal limit, 72 Hounsfield units) showed that despite a high specificity (0.96), this parameter was of low sensitivity (0.63). Although mean liver attenuation in idiopathic hemochromatosis (77 +/- 14) was significantly higher than in chronic liver diseases (53 +/- 17; p less than 10(-4) and normal controls (66 +/- 3; p less than 10(-3], and despite an overall good correlation between liver attenuation and liver iron concentration (r = 0.72; p less than 10(-3], liver attenuation was unable to detect moderate iron overload. Fourteen of 18 patients with a liver iron concentration of less than 150 mumol/g dry liver wt had liver attenuation values of less than 72. Moreover, 3 of 18 subjects with a liver iron concentration of greater than 150 had a liver attenuation of less than 72. Of these 17 false-negatives, only 7 could be attributed to associated steatosis. On the whole, single-energy computed tomography, when used on a routine basis for diagnosing iron overload, is of limited clinical value in idiopathic hemochromatosis due to its poor sensitivity. Hepatic histologic examination together with biochemical determination remains the most accurate means to assess liver iron.