The effects on human health of geothermal emissions in the Rotorua area have been little studied. We calculated standardised mortality ratios (SMRs), comparing residents domiciled in the Rotorua territorial local authority area with those living in the rest of New Zealand, using mortality data for the decade 1981-1990. The SMRs were adjusted for age, calendar year, sex, and ethnicity. Diagnostic categories examined were based on known target-organ systems of hydrogen sulphide toxicity. Mortality causes examined were diseases of the nervous system and sense organs, diseases of the circulatory system, diseases of the respiratory system, and birth defects. Of these, notably elevated SMRs were found only for diseases of the respiratory system, particularly in Maori women (SMR = 1.61, 95 per cent confidence interval 1.19 to 2.12). A major concern was the possibility of confounding by ethnicity. This is because ethnicity in census data is based on self-identification, whereas ethnicity on death certificates is often based on funeral directors' impressions. This leads to serious underreporting of Maori mortality statistics. For the purposes of this study, this situation was further complicated by indications that ethnicity recording for Maori may be more accurate in the Rotorua area than in the rest of New Zealand. Our analysis suggested that, in general, SMRs based on ethnicity are likely to be spuriously high. Although this study found no clear indications of excess mortality in the Rotorua area likely to have been associated with geothermal emissions, there were limitations in the data that could have prevented the recognition of causal associations.