OBJECTIVES: Motor vehicle exhaust fumes are the main source of atmospheric pollution in cities in industrialised countries. They cause respiratory disease and annoy people exposed to them. The relation between ambient exposure to air pollution mainly from motor vehicles and annoyance reactions in a general population was assessed. Also, the importance of factors such as age, sex, respiratory disease, access to the use of a car, and smoking habits on the reporting of these reactions was studied. METHODS: A postal questionnaire was sent out in 55 urban areas in Sweden that had nearly identical air quality monitoring stations of the urban air monitoring network. From each area, 150 people aged 16-70 were randomly selected. The questionnaire contained questions on perception of air quality as well as a question on how often exhaust fumes were annoying. RESULTS: Six-monthly nitrogen dioxide concentrations correlated consistently with the prevalence of reported annoyance related to air pollution and traffic exhaust fumes. Black smoke and sulphur dioxide had no significant effects. The frequency of reporting annoyance reactions was higher among people with asthma, women, and people with lack of access to a car. CONCLUSIONS: In this study town dwellers could detect poor air quality at concentrations well below current guidelines for outdoor air pollution. This suggests that questionnaire studies have a place in monitoring air quality.