The US National Toxicology Program has shown equivocal evidence of carcinogenic activity of sodium fluoride (NaF) in male F344/N rats based on the occurrence of five osteosarcomas in treated animals. In the study the osteosarcomas developed mainly in the rat vertebrae. To provide a possible mechanistic basis for the observed tumors, the genotoxic effects of NaF on the possible target organ of NaF carcinogenesis were examined. Rat vertebral body-derived (RVBd) cells were established from trabecular bone of vertebral bodies of a male F344/N rat 6 weeks of age and treated with NaF. RVBd cells in secondary culture exhibited a high level of alkaline phosphatase (ALP) activity when the cells at confluence were assayed by ALP staining. When the histochemical examination was performed on RVBd cell colonies, most of the colonies were stained positively for ALP. Confluent RVBd cells were responsive to 10(-8) M 1 alpha.25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 with a 7.7-fold increase in osteocalcin production over base line values. The von Kossa staining demonstrated that in the presence of 2 mM beta-glycerophosphate, RVBd cells that were allowed to grow past confluence for approximately 2 months formed mineralized nodules. When RVBd cells in tertiary culture were treated with NaF at 0.5-2.0 mM for 24-72 h, the growth and/or survival of the treated cells was reduced in a dose-dependent manner. Significant increases in the frequencies of chromosome aberrations were induced in a dose- and treatment time-dependent fashion when NaF was administered to RVBd cells at 0.5 and 1.0 mM for 24 and 48 h. The results indicate that NaF is genotoxic to rat vertebrae, providing a possible mechanism for the vertebrae, as a target organ of NaF carcinogenesis.