BACKGROUND: The rationale for this study was to assess the expression, activity and localization of the enzymes uridine diphosphate glucuronosyltransferase (UGT), beta-glucuronidase, cytochrome P450 1A (CYP1A) and cytochrome P4590 2E1 (CYP2E1) in first trimester human placenta and to gauge the effects of maternal variables on placental metabolism METHODS: CYP1A, CYP2E1, UGT and beta-glucuronidase activities were assessed in 25 placentas using ethoxyresorufin, chlorzoxazone, 4-methylumbelliferone and 4-methylumbelliferone glucuronide respectively. Protein expression and localization were detected by immunoblot and immunohistochemistry. All statistics were non-parametric. RESULTS: UGT, beta-glucuronidase and CYP1A activities were detected in all placentas sampled; CYP2E1 was undetectable. CYP1A, UGT1A UGT2B, proteins were detected in all placentas (n = 6) tested and CYP2E1 in 4/6 placentas sampled and were localized to the syncytium. UGT and CYP1A activities were significantly elevated in the placentas of mothers who smoked (P <0.05 and P <0.001 respectively) and were greatest in women who both smoked and drank-alcohol (P <0.05 and P <0.01 respectively). Enzyme activities were significantly negatively correlated with gestational age (P <0.05, r = 0.54, UGT) and maternal age respectively (P <0.001, r = 0.63, CYP1A). beta-Glucuronidase activity did not differ with patient variables. CONCLUSIONS: Metabolism of compounds by the human placenta in the first trimester may be affected by maternal and environmental factors altering the activity of constitutive metabolizing enzymes.