We introduce a new method, activity diaries, in order to evaluate human water contact among fishing communities in an area moderately endemic for Schistosoma japonicum in the Dongting Lake region of Southern China. Two hundred and forty-nine subjects (76% male) were followed prospectively over a 9-month-period in order to verify exposure and reinfection. Exposure was determined crudely with questionnaires, direct 12-h water observations, and more precisely with activity diaries and an adjusted exposure model which took into account the time of day, the duration of contact and the percent body surface area in contact with water. Cohort subjects filled in activity diaries for an average of 85 days as compared with 2 days for the direct water observations. The typical unadjusted mean daily water contact (duration) based on the activity diaries was 53 min with 62% of this time spent in fishing. In contrast, the direct water observations revealed an average daily duration of 149 min with 53% of the time spent in fishing. Human water contact patterns (min/day) by site, activity and body part exposed were examined with the activity diaries. Individuals in the 36-49-year-old age range had the highest degree of water contact. Most of this daily contact occurred by males on the hands (mean±S.D.; 83.53±67.80 min/day) while fishing (mean±S.D.; 87.84±68.88 min/day) on the lake (mean±S.D.; 85.98±69.90 min/day). There was a strong positive log correlation (r=0.95) between the crude and adjusted (based on our derived exposure model) diary outcomes for the entire study sample, however, at higher exposure levels this relationship was differentially weaker (r=0.70). Results from this study suggest that current methods used in evaluating schistosomiasis exposure in China may overestimate and bias measures of the risk of infection. Activity diaries adjusted for the time of day, duration and the percent body surface area exposed are cost-effective and practical instruments to accurately quantify human exposure in the vast lake regions of Southern China where most of the endemic schistosomiasis japonica occurs. Copyright (C) 1998 Elsevier Science B.V.