Chronic renal failure (CRF) patients are considered to present genomic instability and, as a consequence, elevated levels of genetic damage. An open question is whether this damage is related to the stage of the pathology. To determine the background levels of genetic damage, a large population of 258 Caucasian adults (201 CRF patients and 57 controls) was analysed using the micronucleus (MN) assay. The frequency of MN in CRF patients was significantly higher than in controls and correlated with the progression of the disease, according to the glomerular filtration rate. In addition, a significant association was observed between genetic damage and serum creatinine levels. Genetic damage, measured as frequency of MN, increases when renal function decreases. The fact that an increased level of MN is already observed in patients' Stage 2 seems to indicate a genetic predisposition on these patients. Nevertheless, part of the observed damage can be attributed to the uraemic state itself. © The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the UK Environmental Mutagen Society. All rights reserved.