Dental-unit water systems (DUWS) harbor bacterial biofilms, which may serve as a haven for pathogens. The aim of this study was to investigate the microbial load of water from DUWS in general dental practices and the biofouling of DUWS tubing. Water and tube samples were taken from 55 dental surgeries in southwestern England. Contamination was determined by viable counts on environmentally selective, clinically selective, and pathogen-selective media, and biofouling was determined by using microscopic and image analysis techniques. Microbial loading ranged from 500 to 105 CFU. ml-1; in 95% of DUWS water samples, it exceeded European Union drinking water guidelines and in 83% it exceeded American Dental Association DUWS standards. Among visible bacteria, 68% were viable by BacLight staining, but only 5% of this 'viable by BacLight' fraction produced colonies on agar plates. Legionella pneumophila, Mycobacterium spp., Candida spp., and Pseudomonas spp. were detected in one, five, two, and nine different surgeries, respectively. Presumptive oral streptococci and Fusobacterium spp. were detected in four and one surgeries, respectively, suggesting back siphonage and failure of antiretraction devices. Hepatitis B virus was never detected. Decontamination strategies (5 of 55 surgeries) significantly reduced biofilm coverage but significantly increased microbial numbers in the water phase (in both cases, P < 0.05). Microbial loads were not significantly different in DUWS fed with soft, hard, deionized, or distilled water or in different DUWS (main, tank, or bottle fed). Microbiologically, no DUWS can be considered 'cleaner' than others. DUWS deliver water to patients with microbial levels exceeding those considered safe for drinking water.