OBJECTIVES: Automobile exhaust gases contain benzene and toluene, which are excreted in human urine as trans,trans-muconic acid and hippuric acid, respectively. Sorbic acid and benzoic acid, used as food preservatives, are also metabolized into trans,trans-muconic acid and hippuric acid in the human body. The purpose of this study is to estimate the level of benzene and toluene exposure according to the commuting mode and duration, residential environment, and preservative-added foods intake in university students who are not occupationally exposed to benzene or toluene. METHODS: Spot urine samples were collected from 211 university students who had no occupational exposure to volatile organic compounds. Information about their smoking history, residence type, traffic environments, commuting mode and duration, and their intake of bottled or canned food or beverages was gathered through a self-administered questionnaire. Urinary concentrations of trans,trans-muconic acid and hippuric acid were measured and statistically correlated to the individual's life style factors. RESULTS: There was no significant difference in the urinary concentrations of trans,trans-muconic acid or hippuric acid according to the smoking history. Mean urinary concentration of hippuric acid in females was higher than that found in males. Subjects living in districts with a population density of 1,000~4,999 people/km2 showed the highest urinary hippuric acid level; individuals living in cities of 5,000~9,999 people/km2 population density were next. The mean urinary trans,trans-muconic acid concentration was higher in students who were living where traffic jams are common compared to those who did not, and in subjects whose residence were within 149 m from a 4-lane road compared to those whose residence was not. However, neither mode nor duration of the commute showed any effect on the urinary trans,trans-muconic acid or hippuric acid concentrations of the students. Urinary hippuric acid levels increased when consuming canned fruit or canned coffee, and urinary trans,trans-muconic acid levels increased when consuming fruit juices or pickled radishes. CONCLUSIONS: The inhalation of vehicle exhaust and the ingestion of canned or pickled food may increase urinary hippuric acid and trans,trans-muconic acid levels in individuals who are not occupationally exposed to benzene or toluene.