Atherosclerosis and carcinogenesis may share some common mechanisms of the genotoxic action of exogenous compounds, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The main objective of this study was to test the hypothesis that "bulky" aromatic DNA-adducts in smooth muscle cells (SMCs) of thoracic aortas taken at autopsy from sudden and accidental death male subjects, aged between 30 and 60 years (N=133), are associated with the stage of atherosclerosis. The subjects with severe atherosclerotic damage were treated as "Cases" (N=66). The subjects meeting diagnostic criteria for slight and moderate total atherosclerotic body damage were treated as "Controls" (N=67). An additional objective of the study was to evaluate the effect of known atherogenic risk factors and possible modifiers of atherosclerotic changes, such as age, smoking, plasma lipid and antioxidant vitamin levels and some genetic susceptibility markers, e.g. polymorphisms of GSTM1, GSTT1, NAT2, CYP1A1 or apolipoprotein E (APO E) genes. We found significantly higher DNA-adduct levels in "Cases" as compared with "Controls" (2.11+/-1.07 adducts/10(8) nucleotides versus 1.49+/-0.55 adducts/10(8) nucleotides, P<0.001). "Cases" were significantly older and had elevated heart weight and plasma cholesterol levels and a higher frequency of overweight subjects as compared with "Controls". No significant differences in DNA-adduct levels between smokers and non-smokers within either group were detected. Multivariate logistic regression revealed that the "bulky" aromatic DNA-adducts, which are the most likely related to environmental exposure to genotoxic chemicals, remain a statistically significant predictor of the stage of atherosclerosis (OR=3.76, 95% CI=1.54-9.18, P=0.004) even after adjustment for age, smoking, obesity, heart weight and genetic susceptibility markers (GSTT1 and CYP1A1-MspI polymorphisms) that were also significant predictors. The fact that the "bulky" aromatic DNA-adduct levels predict the progression of atherosclerosis independently of smoking indicates that the formation of atherosclerotic plaques may also be initiated by environmental exposures other than tobacco smoke.