Abstract The study was designed to determine seasonal differences in personal exposures to respirable suspended particles (RSP) and environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) for nonsmokers in Bremen, Germany. The subjects were office workers, either living and working in smoking locations or living and working in nonsmoking locations. One hundred and twenty four randomly selected nonsmoking subjects collected air samples close to their breathing zone by wearing personal monitors for 24 h or, in some cases, for 7-day periods during the winter of 1999. The investigation was repeated in the summer with 126 subjects, comprised of as many of the studied winter population (89 subjects) as possible. Saliva cotinine analyses were undertaken to verify the nonsmoking status of the subjects. Subjects wore one personal monitor while at work and one while away from the workplace on weekdays, and a third monitor at the weekend. Collected air samples were analysed for RSP, nicotine, 3-ethenylpyridine (3-EP) and ETS particles. The latter were estimated using ultraviolet absorbance (UVPM), fluorescence (FPM) and solanesol (SolPM) measurements. ETS exposure was consistently higher in the winter than in the summer, this pattern being particularly evident for subjects both living and working with smokers. The highest median 24-h time weighted average (TWA) concentrations of ETS particles (SolPM, 25 μg m −3) and nicotine (1.3 μg m −3) were recorded for subjects performing weekday monitoring during the winter. These were significantly higher than equivalent levels of ETS particles (SolPM, 2.4 μg m −3) and nicotine (0.26 μg m −3) determined during the summer. There were no appreciable differences between winter and summer percent workplace contributions to median TWA ETS particle and nicotine weekday concentrations, the workplace in Bremen, in general, contributing between 35% and 61% of reported median concentrations. Workers, on average, spent one-third of their time at work during a weekday, indicating that concentrations were either comparable or higher in the workplace than in the home and other locations outside the workplace. Median 24-h weekend ETS particle and nicotine concentrations for smoking locations were not significantly different from equivalent weekday levels during the winter, but were significantly lower during the summer. Based upon median 24-h TWA SolPM and nicotine concentrations for the winter, extrapolated to 1 year's ETS exposure, those subjects both living and working in smoking locations (the most highly exposed group) would potentially inhale 13 cigarette equivalents/year (CEs/y). However, based on a similar extrapolation of summer measurements, the same group of subjects would potentially inhale between 1.3 and 1.9 CEs/y. The most highly exposed subjects in this study, based upon 90th percentile concentrations for those both living and working in smoking locations during the winter, would potentially inhale up to 67 CEs/y in the winter and up to 22 CEs/y in the summer. This clearly demonstrates that seasonal effects should be taken into account in the design and interpretation of ETS exposure studies. Air sampling over a 7-day period was shown to be technically feasible, and subsequent RSP, ETS particle and nicotine levels determined by 7-day monitoring were not found to be significantly different from equivalent levels determined by 24-h monitoring. However, the longer sampling period resulted in the collection of an increased quantity of analytes, which improved the limits of quantitation (LOQ) and allowed a more accurate determination of low level ETS exposure. This was reflected by a reduced percentage of data falling below the LOQ for 7-day monitoring compared with 24-h monitoring. The use of a liquid chromatographic method with tandem mass spectrometric detection for saliva cotinine measurement afforded a greatly improved LOQ and greater accuracy at low concentrations compared with the radioimmunoassay (RIA) method used in previous studies by these authors. In this study, 17 subjects out of 180 tested (9.4%) were found to have saliva cotinine levels exceeding the selected threshold of 25 ng ml −1 used to discriminate between smokers and nonsmokers.