Cumulative exposure to oestrogen has been linked to increased risk of breast cancer. Whilst oestrogens induce cancers in rodent bioassays it is unclear whether the mechanisms involved are genotoxic and/or epigenetic. The cytokinesis block micronucleus (CBMN) and the alkaline single cell-gel electrophoresis `Comet' assays were used to examine MCF-7 cells for chromosomal damage and DNA single-strand breaks (SSBs), respectively. The comet-forming activities of oestrogens were also tested in a 72 h primary culture of cells isolated from freshly expressed breast milk. Micronuclei (MN) were scored in 500 binucleate cells per treatment and SSBs were quantified by comet tail length (CTL) (µm). Effects on mitotic rate (per cent binucleate cells) and cell viability (per cent plating efficiency) were also assessed. ß-Oestradiol, oestrone and oestriol were tested for genotoxicity in the 10-10–10-4 M and 10-10–10-2 M concentration ranges in the CBMN and Comet assays, respectively. ß-Oestradiol, following 24 h treatment but not 120 h treatment, induced increases (up to 3-fold) in MN at a concentration of 10-9 M. Oestrone induced dose-related increases in MN (up to 5-fold) following both 24 and 120 h treatment, whereas oestriol appeared not to induce MN. All three oestrogens induced dose-related increases in per cent binucleate cells suggesting that they enhance mitotic rate. In the Comet assay both ß-oestradiol and oestrone induced dose-related increases in SSBs (up to 7-fold over control CTL) and were significantly comet-forming (P < 0.0001) at concentrations as low as 10-9 and 10-8 M, respectively, whereas oestriol was less genotoxic. All three oestrogens were significantly comet-forming (P < 0.0001) in a primary culture of breast milk cells, suggesting that they can damage the target cells from which breast cancers may eventually arise.