The Canadian Multicentre Osteoporosis Study (CaMos) is a prospective cohort study which will measure the incidence and prevalence of osteoporosis and fractures, and the effect of putative risk factors, in a random sample of 10,061 women and men aged > or = 25 years recruited in approximately equal numbers in nine centers across Canada. In this paper we report the results of studies to establish peak bone mass (PBM) which would be appropriate reference data for use in Canada. These reference data are used to estimate the prevalence of osteoporosis and osteopenia in Canadian women and men aged > or = 50 years. Participants were recruited via randomly selected household telephone listings. Bone mineral density (BMD) of the lumbar spine and femoral neck were measured by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry using Hologic QDR 1000 or 2000 or Lunar DPX densitometers. BMD results for lumbar spine and femoral neck were converted to a Hologic base. BMD of the lumbar spine in 578 women and 467 men was constant to age 39 years giving a PBM of 1.042 +/- 0.121 g/cm2 for women and 1.058 +/- 0.127 g/cm2 for men. BMD at the femoral neck declined from age 29 years. The mean femoral neck BMD between 25 and 29 years was taken as PBM and was found to be 0.857 +/- 0.125 g/cm2 for women and 0.910 +/- 0.125 g/cm2 for men. Prevalence of osteoporosis, as defined by WHO criteria, in Canadian women aged > or = 50 years was 12.1% at the lumbar spine and 7.9% at the femoral neck with a combined prevalence of 15.8%. In men it was 2.9% at the lumbar spine and 4.8% at the femoral neck with a combined prevalence of 6.6%.