A randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial of beta-carotene and retinol was conducted with 755 former asbestos workers as study subjects. The targeted endpoint for the intervention study was a reduction in the incidence and prevalence of sputum atypia. The dosage of 50 mg beta-carotene/d and 25,000 IU retinol/d on alternate days resulted significant increases in serum concentrations of both agents with no clinically significant toxicity. Skin yellowing was observed in approximately 35% of patients and may have contributed adversely to protocol adherence. Baseline analysis revealed that smoking and drinking were associated with lower concentrations of serum beta-carotene, even after dietary carotene intake was adjusted for (P < 0.0001). Baseline concentrations of retinol were apparently lowered by smoking (P < 0.002) and increased by drinking (P < 0.0001). Drinking and smoking also were significantly related to lower beta-carotene concentrations after supplementation (P < 0.001). No significant reduction in sputum atypia was observed after treatment.