The activity of six Chinese medicinal herbs against the environmental mutagens and carcinogens benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P), 1,6-dinitropyrene (1,6-diNP) and 3,9-dinitrofluoranthene (3,9-diNF) was determined. Samples of Prunella spica, Rheum palmatum, Polygonum multiflorum, Agrimonia pilosa, Ephedra sinica and Teitoutou were tested in an in vitro system. Antimutagenic activity against B[a]P was marked in the presence of extracts (boiled for 2 h in a water bath) whereas that against 1,6-diNP and 3,9-diNF varied from 20 to 86%. The differences in inhibition might be due to inactivation of metabolic enzymes. An extract of P. multiflorum was divided into ether, ethyl acetate and water soluble fractions, which were tested for antimutagenic activity against B[a]P. The antimutagenic action of the ethyl acetate soluble fraction was substantial and dose-dependent. Tannins and related compounds were the major components of the extract, of which epigallocatechin, epigallocatechin gallate, epicatechin gallate and tannic acid strongly inhibited the mutagenicity of B[a]P (2.5 micrograms/plate) in Salmonella typhimurium TA98 with S9 mix. To confirm the results of the in vitro test system, F344/DuCrj male rats were given a subcutaneous injection of B[a]P. Thereafter, they received water extracts of the six Chinese medicinal herbs for 50 weeks and were examined for tumors. The P. multiflorum extract significantly reduced the tumor incidence.