After the Chernobyl nuclear accident (April 26, 1986), childhood thyroid carcinoma had a great increase in Belarus and Ukraine, as a consequence of the exposure to iodine radioactive fallout. The epidemiological and clinical features of the disease were studied in 472 patients less than 21 yr old at diagnosis, with differentiated thyroid carcinoma, representing 97.7% of all thyroid carcinomas diagnosed in Belarus between May, 1986, and December, 1995. The results were compared with those of 369 subjects of the same age group, with naturally occurring thyroid carcinoma, observed in Italy and France. Between 1986 and 1989, the number of thyroid cancer cases per year ranged from 3-8 and increased to 31 in 1990, to 66 in 1991, to 72 in 1992, to 93 in 1993, to 96 in 1994, and to 90 in 1995. The age at diagnosis was 14 yr or less in 78.8% (children group) and more than 14, but less than 21, yr in the remaining subjects (adolescents group). Mean (+/- SD) age at the time of the accident was 4.4 +/- 3.4 yr (3.2 +/- 2.3 in children and 8.9 +/- 2.7 in adolescents), the majority of the patients (62.9%) being 5 yr old or less. The time interval between the accident and the diagnosis (latency period) decreased progressively from 7.5 +/- 1.6 yr in children 0-2 yr old at the time of the accident to 6.0 +/- 1.6 yr in those 9-11 yr old. Since 1993, the yearly distribution of new cases showed a decrease in the subjects 9 yr old or more at the time of the accident but not in those 5 yr old or less. This could not be accounted for by a shift of exposed subjects to an age group at diagnosis not included in this study, because only subjects less than 12 yr of age at the time of the accident were considered in this analysis. Mean age at diagnosis in Belarus patients was 11.3 +/- 3.1 yr (10.1 +/- 2.3 in children and 15.7 +/- 1.4 in adolescents), whereas, among patients with naturally-occurring thyroid carcinomas from Italy and France, the majority of cases were diagnosed after 14 yr of age (mean age at diagnosis: 14.6 +/- 4.2 yr). The female-to-male ratio was significantly higher in Italy and France (2.5/1), compared with the ratio of patients from Belarus (1.6/1). Most of the tumors were papillary in both series, but a relatively high proportion of follicular carcinomas (P = 0.0001) was found in Italy/France (15.2%), as opposed to 5.3% in Belarus. Extrathyroidal extension and lymph node metastases were more frequent in Belarus (49.1%, P = 0.0001; and 64.6%, P = 0.002, respectively) with respect to Italy/France (24.9% and 53.9%, respectively). Thyroid lymphocytic infiltration and circulating antithyroperoxidase antibody were more frequent in Belarus patients. Our analysis of Belarus thyroid cancer patients less than 21 yr old showed that the post-Chernobyl increase in thyroid carcinomas involved both children and, to a much lesser extent, adolescents. Subjects 5 yr old or less at the time of the accident accounted for the majority of the patients. No evidence of a decrease in the number of new cases was observed in this age group, as opposed to older subjects. These data support the concept that subjects who were younger at the time of radiation exposure had, and continue to have, a greater risk of developing thyroid carcinoma and strongly suggest that this age group should be carefully monitored in the future. When compared with naturally occurring thyroid carcinoma of the same age group observed in Italy and France, the post-Chernobyl Belarus thyroid carcinomas affected younger subjects, were less influenced by gender, were virtually always papillary, had a greater aggressiveness at presentation, and were more frequently associated with thyroid autoimmunity.