Tissues and sera from 110 patients diagnosed with colorectal primary carcinoma, 20 patients with benign colorectal diseases and 31 healthy donors were subjected to quantitative CEA analysis. Multiple samples from tumor lesions and autologous histologically normal mucosa (10 cm from the tumor) were obtained at the time of surgery (cancer patients) or endoscopy (benign patients and healthy volunteers). CEA content was measured in protein extracts obtained from these tissues using a quantitative RIA method. A limit of normality for CEA content was established as 300 ng/mg of protein. When this was taken as cut-off, 104 of 110 (94.5%) tumor lesions and 51 of 110 (46.4%) autologous histologically normal colonic mucosa from cancer patients had elevated CEA levels. No correlation with stage of disease was found, while a correlation was observed with degree of tumor differentiation. A statistically significant difference between CEA content in tumor lesions and in histologically normal mucosa from cancer patients was observed (p = -0.001). Moreover, CEA content was statistically higher in the normal mucosa from cancer patients than in that from healthy donors (p = 0.005). CEA content in tissue specimens from benign lesions differed significantly from that in tissue from healthy donors (p = 0.005) and in carcinoma lesions (p < 0.001). The highest CEA content was observed in benign lesions with severe dysplasia. No statistical correlation between CEA content in carcinoma tissues and serum CEA levels (r = 0.195, p = .13) was found. Therefore, in considering diagnosis or therapy with anti-CEA MAbs for colorectal-carcinoma patients, or potential therapies with anti-CEA recombinant vaccines, serum CEA levels should not be taken as indicating CEA expression in tumor lesions.