National surveys of the exposure of non-smokers to secondhand smoke based on serum cotinine analyses have consistently identified certain groups within the population including children, males and non-Hispanic Blacks as having relatively greater exposure. Although these differences in mean serum cotinine concentrations probably represent differences in exposure of individuals in their daily lives, it is also possible that metabolic or other differences in response might influence the results. To better define the nature of those findings, we have examined the response of 40 non-smokers including both men and women and African-Americans and whites to sidestream (SS) cigarette smoke generated by a smoking machine under controlled conditions. In this study, participants were exposed to aged, diluted SS smoke (ADSS) generated in an environmental chamber with a mean air nicotine concentration of 140 microg m(-3) and 8.6 ppm CO for 4 h. Salivary cotinine was measured every 30 min, and serum cotinine samples were taken prior to, and 2 h after exposure. Urinary nicotine metabolites and NNAL, a tobacco-specific nitrosamine, and 4-aminobiphenyl (4-AB) haemoglobin adducts were also measured prior to and 2 h following the exposure. Under these uniform, controlled conditions, we found a similar response to ADSS smoke exposure among all the participants. In all cases a significant increase in biomarker concentration was noted following exposure, and the short-term increases in salivary cotinine concentration were quite similar at approximately 12 pg ml(-1) min(-1) among the groups. In this small study, no significant differences by gender or race were seen in the mean increases observed in cotinine, NNAL or 4-AB adducts following 4 h of exposure. Thus, our results are most consistent with a relatively uniform response in tobacco biomarker concentrations following short-term exposure to ADSS tobacco smoke, and suggest that biomarker measurements are capable of effectively indicating increases in exposure among groups of non-smokers.