Overnight urine samples were collected from approximately 60 male adults in each of 69 counties of China in 1989. Two specimens were collected from each subject--one after a loading dose of proline and ascorbic acid and another after a loading dose of proline only. Levels of N-nitrosamino acids and nitrate were measured in urine samples and correlated with cumulative mortality rates for subjects aged between 0 and 64 years in the 1970s. Oesophageal cancer mortality rates were positively and significantly associated with (i) urinary levels of excreted N-nitrosoproline (NPRO) (after proline and ascorbic acid loading or proline loading only), (ii) N-nitrososarcosine levels, and (iii) nitrosation potential (the decrease in the amount of urinary NPRO after adding ascorbic acid to the proline load). There were also positive correlations between the urinary level of NPRO or other N-nitrosamino acids and that of nitrate. The urinary excretion of nitrate was associated with consumption of various nitrate-rich vegetables. The results suggest that N-nitroso compounds (NOC) or other nitrite-derived carcinogens are implicated in the aetiology of oesophageal cancer in China.