Serum antioxidant vitamins A (retinol) and E (alpha-tocopherol), beta-carotene, zinc and selenium for 418 children with newly diagnosed malignancy were compared with those of 632 cancer-free controls. Incident cancer cases and controls were 1-16 years old and recruited in 1986-1989. Age- and sex-adjusted serum concentrations of retinol, beta-carotene and alpha-tocopherol were significantly inversely associated with cancer. In similar models, the odds ratio (OR) comparing the highest with the lowest quintile was 2.06 (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.40-3.02) for retinol, 3.87 (95% CI: 2.54-5.90) for beta-carotene, 2.15 (95% CI: 1.48-3.10) for alpha-tocopherol, 1.29 (95% CI: 0.75-2.23) for selenium, and 1.94 (95% CI: 1.17-2.23) for zinc. The cancer sites that were associated with serum beta-carotene were, in general, leukaemia, lymphoma, central nervous system, bone and renal tumours. Moreover, leukaemia was associated with low mean serum levels of retinol, selenium and zinc. Subjects with lymphoma, bone and renal tumours also had lower mean retinol and alpha-tocopherol levels than controls. Brain tumour patients had low vitamin E levels. Low serum values of antioxidant vitamins were associated with childhood neoplasm occurrence. Some site-specific effect was reported. Low peripheral nutrient levels are not considered as cancer promoters but rather as an impairment of the body's defence mechanism occurring during the cancer-related metabolic and nutritional disturbances and inflammation processes.