In this study we investigated whether a 60 Hz magnetic field can act at the cellular level to influence the growth of human estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells. Our experimental design assessed cell proliferation of a human breast cancer cell line, MCF-7, in the absence or the presence of melatonin which inhibits growth at a physiological concentration of 10(-9) M. In three experiments, continuous exposure to average sinusoidal 60 Hz magnetic fields of 1.90 +/- 0.01, 2.40 +/- 0.70, and 2.53 +/- 0.50 mG, or simultaneous exposure in matched incubators to average 60 Hz magnetic fields of 10.4 +/- 2.12, 11.95 +/- 2.73, and 11.95 +/- 3.28 mG, respectively, had no effect on cell proliferation in the absence of melatonin. When MCF-7 cells were cultured in the presence of 10(-9) M melatonin, an 18% inhibition of growth was observed for cells in a 2.40 +/- 0.70 mG field. This effect was blocked by a 60 Hz magnetic field of 11.95 +/- 2.75 mG. In a second experiment, a 27% inhibition of MCF-7 cell growth was observed for cells in a 2.53 +/- 0.50 mG magnetic field, and this was blocked by a 60 Hz magnetic field of 11.95 +/- 3.28 mG. These results provide the first evidence that ELF frequency magnetic fields can act at the cellular levels to enhance breast cancer cell proliferation by blocking melatonin's natural oncostatic action. In addition, there appears to be a dose threshold between 2 and 12 mG. The mechanism(s) of action is unknown and may involve modulation of signal transduction events associated with melatonin's regulation of cell growth.