There is evidence that iron loading and organ damage can be prevented in patients with hemochromatosis if prophylactic phlebotomy is employed early in the disease--findings emphasizing the importance of early detection before clinical signs occur. This study was designed to determine the efficacy of transferrin saturation as a screening tool for hemochromatosis and to assess the frequency of homozygosity for the HLA-linked hemochromatosis gene in a healthy population. We screened 11,065 presumably healthy blood donors (5840 men and 5225 women). Donors with transferrin saturations of 62 percent or more after an overnight fast were considered potential homozygotes and were asked to undergo liver biopsy and pedigree analysis. The frequency of values for transferrin saturation of 62 or higher in men was 0.008 and in women 0.003. Thirty-eight persons with values higher than 62 were studied in detail; 35 underwent liver biopsy. Liver iron stores ranged from normal to markedly increased. Twelve siblings with an identical HLA match to a proband underwent liver biopsy, and 11 had increased liver iron stores. According to likelihood analysis of the pedigrees, 26 of the 38 probands were homozygotes, and 12 were heterozygotes. The estimated frequency of homozygosity was based on the data in men, because the threshold value of 62 for the transferrin saturation identified only half as many female homozygotes as expected. The frequency of homozygosity was 0.0045, corresponding to a gene frequency of 0.067. The value of population screening is demonstrated in these studies by the detection of homozygotes before clinical manifestations of hemochromatosis occur.