The effects of boron neutron capture irradiation employing either BPA or BSH as neutron capture agents has been assessed using the dorsal skin of Fischer 344 rats. Pharmacokinetic studies, using prompt gamma spectrometry, revealed comparable levels of boron-10 (10B) in blood and skin after the intravenous infusion of BSH (100 mg/kg body wt.). The 10B content of blood (12.0 +/- 0.5 micrograms/g) was slightly higher than that of skin (10.0 +/- 0.5 micrograms/g) after oral dosing with BPA. Biphasic skin reactions were observed after irradiation with the thermal neutron beam alone or in combination with BPA or BSH. The time of onset of the first phase of the skin reaction, moist desquamation, was approximately 2 weeks. The time at which the second-wave skin reaction, dermal necrosis, became evident was dose-related and occurred after a latent interval of > or = 24 weeks, well after the acute epithelial reaction had healed. The incidence of both phases of skin damage was also dose-related. The radiation doses required to produce skin damage in 50% of skin sites (ED50 values) were calculated from dose-effect curves and these values were used to determine relative biological effectiveness (RBE) and compound biological effectiveness (CBE) factors for both moist desquamation and dermal necrosis. It was concluded on the basis of these calculations that the microdistribution of the two neutron capture agents had a critical bearing on the overall biological effect after thermal neutron activation. BSH, which was possibly excluded from the cytoplasm of epidermal cells, had a low CBE factor value (0.56 +/- 0.06) while BPA, which may be selectively accumulated in epidermal cells had a very high CBE factor (3.74 +/- 0.7). For the dermal reaction, where vascular endothelial cells represent the likely target cell population, the CBE factor values were comparable, at 0.73 +/- 0.42 and 0.86 +/- 0.08 for BPA ad BSH, respectively.