Microscopic examination of individual human lymphocytes embedded in agarose, subjected to electrophoresis and stained with a fluorescent DNA-binding dye, provides a novel way of measuring DNA damage as extent of migration of DNA fragments, mainly single-strand breaks. With this relatively simple method, DNA damage arising as a consequence of smoking, age and other factors was examined in peripheral human lymphocytes from 100 healthy individuals living in Pisa (Italy). The extent of DNA migration was found to be significantly increased by smoking. It is noteworthy that the effect of smoking was more significant in men than in women and that DNA migration was similar in the young and in the older people. SCE analysis did not reveal any significant effect of smoking, sex or age in the same population, suggesting a higher responsiveness of the comet test to DNA-damaging agents.