BACKGROUND--There is widespread concern that the cultivation of oilseed rape leads to seasonal epidemics of respiratory symptoms in populations living in the neighbourhood, and it has been suggested that the plant is a potent allergen. A study was therefore undertaken to determine the prevalence of seasonal symptoms in rural populations close to and far from areas of oilseed rape cultivation, and to measure the levels of allergen and other potentially harmful substances released by the crop. METHODS--Random samples of 1000 adults from the general practice populations of two villages surrounded by oilseed rape fields, and 1000 adults from one village far from such cultivation, were taken. The subjects completed a previously validated questionnaire on respiratory and other symptoms, including questions on symptom seasonality, occupation, and smoking habits. Pollen and fungal spore counts were made around fields of oilseed rape and in the villages. The chemicals released by oilseed rape were measured in the field. RESULTS--Overall, 86.8% of the subjects completed the questionnaires and the populations of the two samples were generally comparable. Spring and summer exacerbations of symptoms occurred equally in the two areas in approximately 25% of the population. There were small but significant excesses of cough, wheeze, and headaches in spring in the oilseed rape area (2.3% v 1.1%, 6.8% v 4.6%, and 4.8% v 2.8%, respectively), and cough, wheeze, and itchy skin were more prevalent in smokers. Counts of oilseed rape pollen were generally low except adjacent to fields, and counts of fungal spores were mostly higher in the rape than the non-rape areas. Oilseed rape was shown to give off terpenes and these were detected close to fields. CONCLUSIONS--While it is likely that a proportion of the spring symptoms occurring in people living in close proximity to oilseed rape is caused by the plant, the excess of such symptoms is small. This, together with the low levels of pollen in the area, suggests that allergy to oilseed rape pollen is uncommon. The general prevalence of seasonal symptoms in rural areas is of interest, and a proportion of these cases is likely to be caused by factors other than allergy. Release of chemicals by plants and natural rises in summer ozone levels may be contributors.