We have previously reported that benzene decreases peripheral white blood cell and platelet counts and specifically lowers subsets of several blood cell types, including CD4+-T cells, B cells, NK cells, and granulocytes. Diminished thymus function has been implicated as a mechanism for CD4+-T cell loss in other conditions such as AIDS by assays of T cell receptor excision circles (TRECs), a marker of naive T cells that have recently emigrated from the thymus. To evaluate alteration of thymic function as a mechanism for benzene's effects on CD4+-T cell counts, we measured total TREC levels in 45 benzene-exposed workers and 45 unexposed controls. There was no significant difference in TREC levels per 10(6) peripheral blood leukocytes in the benzene-exposed workers compared to the controls. Although our study does not rule out counterbalancing alterations of TREC levels in specific T cell subsets, benzene's lymphotoxicity does not appear to be mediated through diminished thymus function.