The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is genital infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). The presence of HPV was studied in archival smears from a random sample of women living in Greenland (GW) and Denmark (DW) having, respectively, a high risk and an intermediate risk for cervical cancer. Risk factors were also examined of the original 126 Danish and 129 Greenlandic archived smears collected during October and November 1988. 125 were located from each country including all abnormal smears. HPV DNA was isolated from the smears and detected by means of a consensus polymerase chain reaction (PCR) detecting a broad spectrum of genital HPV types. HPV was detected in all the abnormal smears and in 22 and 33% respectively of the cytological normal smears from DW and GW. Risk of HPV was significantly higher in smears from women who started sexual life relatively recently (respectively, or = 10 years ago (adjusted prevalence-OR: 9.3; 95% CI: 2.2-39.2 in DW and 5.9; 95% CI: 1.4-25.3 in GW). Among other important risk factors were age in both areas, lifetime number of sex partners and current smoking in DW and ever and gonorrhoea in GW. This study confirms the usefulness of the method as all abnormal smears were positive and, furthermore, the predictors for HPV presence in the normal smears corroborate with those found in recent studies of HPV in fresh cervical swabs. Thus, this method can be useful for large-scale epidemiological studies of HPV DNA in already sampled material.