Abstract The in situ detection of mutagens by the TLC/Ames’ assay has been applied to aqueous discharges from a textile plant. The samples were fractionated in acid/neutral and basic fractions which subsequently were subject to the TLC/Ames’ test. The results demonstrate the presence of a number of both direct and indirect mutagens in the waste water. The chemical properties of these compounds are discussed in light of their chromatographic behaviour. The applicability of this method for characterizing mutagens in complex mixtures is demonstrated.