Genetic polymorphisms in enzymes involved in carcinogen metabolism have been shown to influence susceptibility to cancer. Cytochrome P450 2E1 (CYP2E1) is primarily responsible for the bioactivation of many low molecular weight carcinogens, including certain nitrosamines, whereas glutathione S-transferases (GSTs) are involved in detoxifying many other carcinogenic electrophiles. Esophageal cancer, which is prevalent in China, is hypothesized to be related to environmental nitrosamine exposure. Thus, we conducted a pilot case-control study to examine the association between CYP2E1, GSTM1, GSTT1, and GSTP1 genetic polymorphisms and esophageal cancer susceptibility. DNA samples were isolated from surgically removed esophageal tissues or scraped esophageal epithelium from cases with cancer (n = 45), cases with severe epithelial hyperplasia (n = 45), and normal controls (n = 46) from a high-risk area, Linxian County, China. RFLPs in the CYP2E1 and the GSTP1 genes were determined by PCR amplification followed by digestion with RsaI or DraI and Alw26I, respectively. Deletion of the GSTM1 and GSTT1 genes was examined by a multiplex PCR. The CYP2E1 polymorphism detected by RsaI was significantly different between controls (56%) and cases with cancer (20%) or severe epithelial hyperplasia (17%; P < 0.001). Persons without the RsaI variant alleles had more than a 4-6-fold risk of developing severe epithelial hyperplasia (adjusted odds ratio, 6.0; 95% confidence interval, 2.3-16.0) and cancer (adjusted odds ratio, 4.8; 95% confidence interval, 1.8-12.4). Polymorphisms in the GSTs were not associated with increased esophageal cancer risk. These results indicate that CYP2E1 may be a genetic susceptibility factor involved in the early events leading to the development of esophageal cancer.