Benzene levels in human breath and in ambient air were compared in the urban area of San Francisco (SF) and in a more remote coastal pristine setting of Stinson Beach, Calif. (SB). Benzene analysis was done by gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy (GC-MS). Ambient benzene levels were sevenfold higher in SF (2.6 +/- 1.3 ppb, n = 25) than SB (0.38 +/- 0.39 ppb, n = 21). In SF, benzene in smokers' breath (6.8 +/- 3.0 ppb) was greater than in nonsmokers' breath (2.5 +/- 0.8 ppb) and smokers' ambient air (3.3 +/- 0.8 ppb). In SB the same pattern was observed: benzene in smokers' breath was higher than in nonsmokers' breath and ambient air. Benzene in SF nonsmokers' breath was greater than in SB nonsmokers' breath. Marijuana-only smokers had benzene breath levels between those of smokers and nonsmokers. There was little correlation between benzene in breath and number of cigarettes smoked, or with other benzene exposures such as diet. Of special interest was the finding that benzene in breath of SF nonsmokers (2.5 +/- 0.8 ppb) was greater than that in nonsmokers ambient air (1.4 +/- 0.1 ppb). The same was true in SB, where benzene in nonsmokers breath was greater than ambient air (1.8 +/- 0.2 ppb versus 1.0 +/- 0.1 ppb on d 1 and 1.3 +/- 0.3 ppb versus 0.23 +/- 0.18 ppb on d 2). This suggests an additional source of benzene other than outdoor ambient air.