The DNA adduct 8-hydroxy-2'-deoxyguanosine (8-OHdG) has been widely used as a biomarker for oxidative stress. Bulky DNA adducts, which are detectable by the 32P-postlabelling method, provide evidence for exposure to and metabolic activation of large, mainly apolar compounds, e.g. polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. We determined both types of adducts in placental tissues of 30 term pregnancies and related the adduct levels to the exposure to tobacco smoke and the plasma antioxidant status. Urine and plasma continine concentrations were used to select 10 nonsmokers, 9 nonsmokers exposed to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) and 11 smoking women. Placental levels of 8-OHdG were 0.84 +/- 0.11, 0.90 +/- 0.21 and 0.83 +/- 0.20/10(5) deoxyguanosine bases (dG) for nonsmokers, nonsmokers exposed to ETS and smokers, respectively. The differences between the groups were not significant. Smoking women had significantly lower plasma vitamin C and beta-carotene concentrations than nonsmoking women or nonsmoking women exposed to environmental tobacco smoke. The 8-OHdG adduct level in placental DNA was inversely correlated with the plasma vitamin E concentration (r = -0.47, P < 0.05). There was no association between placental 8-OHdG adducts and vitamin A, C and beta-carotene in plasma. In total, 15 different adducts could be identified in the 30 placenta samples by the 32P-postlabelling method. There was a strong inter-individual variation in both the number of adducts and adduct intensities. No smoking-related or vitamin-related effects on adduct patterns or intensities were found. Our findings suggests that, within the limits of the methods used, tobacco smoke exposure during pregnancy does not lead to a measurable increase in placental DNA adduct levels and that vitamin E appears to have a protective effect on placental 8-OHdG formation.