The vitamin D status of a general adult urban population was estimated between November and April in 1569 subjects selected from 20 French cities grouped in nine geographical regions (between latitude 43 degrees and 51 degrees N). Major differences in 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) concentration were found between regions, the lowest values being seen in the North and the greatest in the South, with a significant 'sun' effect (r = 0.72; p = 0.03) and latitude effect (r = -0.79; p = 0.01). In this healthy adult population, 14% of subjects exhibited 25(OH)D values < or = 30 nmol/l (12 ng/ml), which represents the lower limit (< 2 SD) for a normal adult population measured in winter with the same method (RIA Incstar). A significant negative correlation was found between serum intact parathyroid hormone (iPTH) and serum 25(OH)D values (p < 0.01). Serum iPTH held a stable plateau level at 36 pg/ml as long as serum 25(OH)D values were higher than 78 nmol/l (31 ng/ml), but increased when the serum 25(OH)D value fell below this. When the 25(OH)D concentration became equal to or lower than 11.3 nmol/l (4.6 ng/ml), the PTH values reached the upper limit of normal values (55 pg/ml) found in vitamin D replete subjects. These results showed that in French normal adults living in an urban environment with a lack of direct exposure to sunshine, diet failed to provide an adequate amount of vitamin D. It is important to pay attention to this rather high prevalence of vitamin D insufficiency in the general adult population and to discuss the clinical utility of winter supplementation with low doses of vitamin D.