Sulfation and sulfate conjugate hydrolysis play an important role in metabolism, and are catalysed by members of the sulfotransferase and sulfatase enzyme super-families. In general, sulfation is a deactivating, detoxication pathway, but for some chemicals the sulfate conjugates are much more reactive than the parent compound. The range of compounds which are sulfated is enormous, yet we still understand relatively little of the function of this pathway. This review summarises current knowledge of the sulfation system and the enzymes involved, and illustrates how heterologous expression of sulfotransferases (SULTs) and sulfatases is aiding our appreciation of the properties of these important proteins. The role of sulfation in the bioactivation of procarcinogens and promutagens is discussed, and new data on the inhibition of the sulfotransferase(s) involved by common dietary components such as tea and coffee are presented. The genetic and environmental factors which are known to influence the activity and expression of human SULTs and sulfatases are also reviewed.