Two arsenic- and heavy metal-contaminated mine-spoil sites, at Carrock Fell, Cumbria and Devon Great Consols Mine, Devon, were found to support populations of the earthworms Lumbricus rubellus Hoffmeister and Dendrodrilus rubidus (Savigny). L. rubellus and D. rubidus collected from the Devon site and an uncontaminated site were kept for 28 days in uncontaminated soil and in soil containing sodium arsenate (494 mg As kg−1). The state of the specimens was recorded every 7 days using a semi-quantitative assessment of earthworm health (condition index, C. I.). The C. I. remained high for all specimens except those of L. rubellus and D. rubidus from uncontaminated sites, which displayed 60 and 10% mortality, respectively. L. rubellus collected from the Carrock Fell site, and L. rubellus and D. rubidus from an uncontaminated site, burrowed as rapidly into soil containing up to 1235 mg As kg−1 in the form of sodium arsenate as into uncontaminated soil when placed on the soil surface. When earthworms were allowed a choice between uncontaminated soil and soil contaminated with sodium arsenate in concentrations of up to 1235 mg As kg−1, the threshold concentration for avoidance of contaminated soil was lower for L. rubellus and D. rubidus from uncontaminated soil than for specimens from contaminated soil. There was no significant effect of pH on soil discrimination. The LC50 concentration of As for L. rubellus from Devon Great Consols was significantly higher (P<0.001) than for L. rubellus from the uncontaminated site: 1510 and 96 mg As kg−1, respectively.