Signs of kidney dysfunction detectable in urinary protein excretion were searched for in a group of 86 silica-exposed workers who were compared to 86 control subjects matched for age, smoking status and body mass index. No worker had any clinical, spirometric or radiographic sign of silicosis, and exposure duration averaged 15.2 months (range: 11-20). An increase in the urinary excretion of albumin, transferrin, retinol-binding protein and N-acetyl-beta-D-glucosaminidase was found in the exposed group, and the prevalences of pathological values were also elevated in this group. By contrast, both groups had similar serum levels of creatinine and beta 2-microglobulin. These results strongly suggest that occupational exposure to silica may lead to subclinical renal effects after less than 2 years and in the absence of silicosis.