The acetylation polymorphism may affect rates of activation or detoxification of common carcinogens, thereby influencing cancer risk. Our aim was to define the ethnic distribution of the major slow acetylator mutations in the polymorphic N-acetyltransferase gene, in order to provide background data for epidemiological studies. Our results contain new analyses on 803 individuals, including 365 new specimens and 438 specimens that had been partly characterized in an earlier study. Tests were done to establish the specificity and reproducibility (98%) of our PCR assays. The recognized slow acetylator mutations, 191A, 481T, 590A, and 857A (which correspond to alleles M4 and M4b; M1 and r3; M2/r2; and M3 and S3, respectively), accounted for nearly all slow acetylator alleles among blacks, whites, Asian Indians, Hispanics, Koreans, Japanese, Hong Kong Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipinos and Samoans. The ethnic distribution supports an interpretation that the acetylation polymorphism existed before Paleolithic splitting of human populations from Africa. We identified two additional NAT2 mutations, suggesting that other rare alleles are likely to be found.