Genotoxicity related to waste anaesthetic gas exposure is controversial. We have investigated the frequency of sister chromatid exchanges in peripheral lymphocytes of operating room personnel exposed to trace concentrations of isoflurane and nitrous oxide. Occupational exposure was recorded using a direct reading instrument. Frequencies of sister chromatid exchanges were measured in lymphocyte cultures of 27 non-smokers working in the operating room and 27 non-smoking controls. Personnel were exposed to an 8-h time-weighted average of nitrous oxide 11.8 ppm and isoflurane 0.5 ppm. After exposure, sister chromatid exchange frequency was increased significantly (mean 9.0 (SD 1.3) vs 8.0 (1.4) in exposed and control personnel, respectively) (P < 0.05). We conclude that exposure to even trace concentrations of waste anaesthetic gases may cause genetic damage comparable with smoking 11-20 cigarettes per day.