Preliminary studies suggest that the estrogen metabolite 16 alpha-hydroxyestrone is associated with breast cancer, whereas 2-hydroxyestrone is not. However, epidemiological studies evaluating this relationship and taking established risk factors for breast cancer into account are lacking. The purpose of this study was to examine the association of the ratio of the urinary estrogen metabolites (2-hydroxyestrone and 16 alpha-hydroxyestrone) and of the individual metabolites with breast cancer. A spot urine sample, a brief history, and clinical data were collected from breast cancer cases (n = 42) and from women coming to the hospital for a routine mammogram or attending a free breast cancer screening (n = 64). 2-Hydroxyestrone and 16 alpha-hydroxyestrone were measured by enzyme immunoassay, and the estrogen metabolite ratio (EMR; 2-hydroxyestrone:16 alpha-hydroxyestrone) was computed. Cases and controls were similar in terms of age (mean age of cases, 53.8 +/- 15.1 years, versus 54.2 +/- 10.4 years for controls; P = 0.9) and demographics. Mean EMR was not associated with breast cancer overall (1.67 +/- 0.80 versus 1.72 +/- 0.66; P = 0.7). However, in postmenopausal women, the mean EMR was significantly lower in cases compared to controls (1.41 +/- 0.73 versus 1.81 +/- 0.71; P = 0.05). The multivariate adjusted odds ratios for the intermediate and lowest tertiles of the EMR relative to the highest among postmenopausal women were 9.73 (95% confidence interval, 1.27-74.84) and 32.74 (95% confidence interval, 3.36-319.09), respectively. The test for trend was highly significant (P = 0.003). Analyses of the individual metabolites indicated that 16 alpha-hydroxyestrone was a strong risk factor. The EMR did not show any consistent associations with age, race/ethnicity, age at first birth, parity, body mass index, family history of breast cancer, smoking, or alcohol intake. These data suggest a strong, inverse association of the EMR and a strong positive association of 16 alpha-hydroxyestrone with breast cancer in postmenopausal women. Larger studies are needed to confirm these results and to assess the relationship of the EMR and of the individual metabolites with breast cancer, with attention to menopausal status and clinical factors and with adjustment for known breast cancer risk factors.