BACKGROUND The normal conjunctival flora is one of the main sources of intraocular contamination during cataract surgery. The theory that the positive anterior chamber (AC) pressure during phacoemulsification (phaco), and the smaller wound utilised, might reduce the rate of contamination was studied. METHODS The peroperative AC aspirates of 210 consecutive patients undergoing cataract surgery were assessed. In group 1, 100 patients underwent a standard extracapsular cataract extraction (ECCE). In group 2, 110 patients underwent phacoemulsification of the crystal-line lens through a scleral tunnel. AC aspirates from the Simcoe irrigation/aspiration cannula (group 1) and phaco probe (group 2) were collected and microbiological studies performed after direct and enrichment cultures. RESULTS There were 29 (29%) positives in the ECCE group compared with 22 (20%) positive cultures from AC aspirates in the phaco group. Coagulase negative staphylococcus (CNS) was the commonest contaminant in both groups. CONCLUSION Although there was a higher rate of AC contamination during ECCE, the difference was not statistically significant (p > 0.10, chi 2 = 2.31).