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Reported prevalence rates of asthma vary within and between countries around the world. These differences suggest environmental factors in addition to genetic factors in the cause of the disease and may provide clues for preventive strategies. We examined the variability of asthma-related symptoms and medication use among adults in 6 sites across Canada (Vancouver, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Montreal, Halifax and Prince Edward Island) and compared our findings with those from sites that had participated in a recent European survey.We used the same sampling strategy and standardized questionnaire as those used in the European Community Respiratory Health Survey (ECRHS). The 6 Canadian sites were selected to represent different environments with respect to climate, air pollution and occupational exposure. Community-based samples of 3000 to 4000 people aged 20–44 years were randomly selected in each site. Subjects were asked to complete the questionnaire by mail between March 1993 and November 1994. Prevalence rates (and 95% confidence intervals [CIs]) of asthma symptoms, self-reported asthma attacks and use of asthma medication were compared across the Canadian sites and with sites that had participated in the ECRHS.The overall response rate of those selected to receive the questionnaire was 86.5% (range 74.5%–92.8%). The prevalence rates of most asthma symptoms varied significantly among the Canadian sites. For instance, 21.9% (Montreal) to 30.4% (Halifax) of the men and 24.0% (Vancouver) to 35.2% (Halifax) of the women reported wheezing in the year before the survey. Depending on the site, 4.4% to 6.3% of the men and 5.2% to 9.5% of the women reported an asthma attack in the last year, and 4.0% to 6.1% of the men and 4.9% to 9.7% of the women were currently using asthma medication. Prevalence rates of symptoms, asthma attacks and medication use did not change with age, but they were higher among women than among men. Compared with the results from the ECRHS sites, those from the Canadian sites were among the highest.Significant variation in the prevalence of asthma symptoms, asthma attacks and use of asthma medication between Canadian sites and international sites suggests environmental influences. Different combinations of factors in different sites may be responsible for the high prevalence rates and should be the subject of further research to guide clinical management and public health intervention.