Thyroid examinations, including palpation, ultrasound and, selectively, fine-needle aspiration biopsy, were conducted on nearly 2,000 Chernobyl cleanup workers from Estonia to evaluate the occurrence of thyroid cancer and nodular thyroid disease among men with protracted exposure to ionizing radiation. The examinations were conducted in four cities in Estonia during March-April 1995, 9 years after the reactor accident. The study population was selected from a predefined cohort of 4,833 cleanup workers from Estonia under surveillance for cancer incidence. These men had been sent to Chernobyl between 1986 and 1991 to entomb the damaged reactor, remove radioactive debris and perform related cleanup activities. A total of 2,997 men were invited for thyroid screening and 1,984 (66%) were examined. Estimates of radiation dose from external sources were obtained from military or other institutional records, and details about service dates and types of work performed while at Chernobyl were obtained from a self-administered questionnaire. Blood samples were collected for assay of chromosomal translocations in circulating lymphocytes and loss of expression of the glycophorin A (GPA) gene in erythrocytes. The primary outcome measure was the presence or absence of thyroid nodules as determined by the ultrasound examination. Of the screened workers, 1,247 (63%) were sent to Chernobyl in 1986, including 603 (30%) sent in April or May, soon after the accident. Workers served at Chernobyl for an average of 3 months. The average age was 32 years at the time of arrival at Chernobyl and 40 years at the time of thyroid examination. The mean documented radiation dose from external sources was 10.8 cGy. Biological indicators of exposure showed low correlations with documented dose, but did not indicate that the mean dose for the population was higher than the average documented dose. Ultrasound examinations revealed thyroid nodules in 201 individuals (10.2%). The prevalence of nodules increased with age at examination, but no significant associations were observed with recorded dose, date of first duty at Chernobyl, duration of service at Chernobyl, building the sarcophagus or working on the roof of neighboring buildings or close to the damaged reactor. Nodularity showed a nonsignificant (p(1) = 0.10) positive association with the proportion of lymphocytes with chromosome translocations, but associations with the frequency of variant erythrocytes in the GPA assay were weak and unstable (p(1) > or = 0.46). The majority of fine-needle biopsies taken on 77 study participants indicated benign nodular disease. However, two cases of papillary carcinoma and three benign follicular neoplasms were identified and referred for treatment. Both men with thyroid cancer had been sent to Chernobyl in May of 1986, when the potential for exposure to radioactive iodines was greatest. Chernobyl cleanup workers from Estonia did not experience a markedly increased risk of nodular thyroid disease associated with exposure to external radiation. Possible reasons for the apparent absence of effect include low radiation doses, the protracted nature of the exposure, errors in dose measurement, low sensitivity of the adult thyroid gland or the insufficient passage of time for a radiation effect to be expressed.