Accurate human risk assessment requires sensitive methods to evaluate dose-response relationships, especially following low level exposures. We have developed a reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) method to quantitative cytochrome P450-1A1 (CYP1A1) mRNA levels in human blood lymphocytes. Many polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) such as benzo[a]pyrene, and chlorinated PAH such as polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, dibenzofurans and biphenyls induce CYP1A1 expression through activation of an endogenous protein, the Ah receptor. Using a quantitative competitive RT-PCR method that included a synthetic internal standard we determined copy numbers of CYP1A1 mRNA in resting as well as mitogen-stimulated human blood lymphocytes. In mitogen-stimulated human blood lymphocytes assay variation was approximately 10% for measurement of this low expression gene and mRNA levels correlated well with ethoxyresorufin-O-deethylase (EROD) activity. The expression of mRNA was induced 20-fold upon culturing human lymphocytes with 10 nM TCDD. In nonstimulated, uninduced lymphocytes CYP1A1 levels are extremely low (1000 copies mRNA/10(4) cells) and cannot be measured by EROD activity. Studies of CYP1A1 mRNA expression in chemically-exposed populations are in progress.