OBJECTIVE--To determine the frequency of cardiovascular risk factors in people categorised by previously defined "action levels" of waist circumference. DESIGN--Prevalence study in a random population sample. SETTING--Netherlands. SUBJECTS--2183 men and 2698 women aged 20-59 years selected at random from the civil registry of Amsterdam and Maastricht. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES--Waist circumference, waist to hip ratio, body mass index (weight (kg)/height (m2)), total plasma cholesterol concentration, high density lipoprotein cholesterol concentration, blood pressure, age, and lifestyle. RESULTS--A waist circumference exceeding 94 cm in men and 80 cm in women correctly identified subjects with body mass index of > or = 25 and waist to hip ratios > or = 0.95 in men and > or = 0.80 in women with a sensitivity and specificity of > or = 96%. Men and women with at least one cardiovascular risk factor (total cholesterol > or = 6.5 mmol/l, high density lipoprotein cholesterol < or = 0.9 mmol/l, systolic blood pressure > or = 160 mm Hg, diastolic blood pressure > or = 95 mm Hg) were identified with sensitivities of 57% and 67% and specificities of 72% and 62% respectively. Compared with those with waist measurements below action levels, age and lifestyle adjusted odds ratios for having at least one risk factor were 2.2 (95% confidence interval 1.8 to 2.8) in men with a waist measurement of 94-102 cm and 1.6 (1.3 to 2.1) in women with a waist measurement of 80-88 cm. In men and women with larger waist measurements these age and lifestyle adjusted odds ratios were 4.6 (3.5 to 6.0) and 2.6 (2.0 to 3.2) respectively. CONCLUSIONS--Larger waist circumference identifies people at increased cardiovascular risks.