Animal and ecological studies suggest that linoleic acid intake is related to breast-cancer incidence. Analytical epidemiologic studies, however, do not support such findings. The primary objective of our ecological study was to investigate the association between breast-cancer incidence and linoleic acid status across European countries. In addition, other fatty acids and cancer sites were studied. Mean fatty acid composition of adipose tissue samples in 11 centres from 8 European countries and Israel served as indicators of exposure of the population. Figures on cancer incidence for the respective or comparable regions were obtained from published data. N-6 fatty acids in adipose tissue ranged from 10.4 in Helsinki to 24.6 g/100 g fatty acids in Jerusalem. N-6 fatty acids were not associated significantly with breast, colon or prostate cancer. Cancers of the breast and colon were associated negatively with cis-mono-unsaturated fatty acids and positively with trans fatty acids. Despite a large range in intake, we found no evidence of a positive association between n-6 fatty acid status and breast cancer, but associations were observed between other fatty acids and cancer. Differences in linoleic acid intake cannot explain risk differences in breast-cancer incidence between affluent countries, while associations of other fatty acids with cancer rates may reflect cultural differences.