The 24 h urinary excretion of paracetamol and its metabolites following a single oral dose of 1.5 g was compared in 111 Caucasians (Scotland), 67 West Africans (Ghana) and 20 East Africans (Kenya). The fractional recovery of the mercapturic acid and cysteine conjugates of paracetamol was 9.3% in the Caucasians compared with only 5.2% and 4.4% in the Ghanaians and Kenyans respectively (P = less than 0.0005). This probably indicates markedly reduced metabolic activation of paracetamol in the Africans. There were no ethnic differences in the sulphate conjugation of paracetamol, but the mean fractional recovery of the glucuronide conjugate in Caucasians (54%) was significantly less than in the Africans (58%). The sulphate conjugation of paracetamol was increased and glucuronide conjugation reduced in Caucasian females compared with males. A similar trend was seen in the Ghanaians but there were no other significant sex differences. The range of intersubject variation in the metabolic activation of paracetamol was sixty fold compared with only a three fold variation in glucuronide and sulphate conjugation. This has important implications for susceptibility to paracetamol hepatotoxicity following overdosage especially in a small subgroup showing extensive metabolic activation. These ethnic differences in paracetamol metabolism may be related to genetic or environmental factors including differences in diet and protein intake.