Epidemiological studies suggest a correlation between exposure to low-level extremely low-frequency (ELF) magnetic fields (MF) and certain cancers and neurodegenerative diseases. Experimental studies have not provided any mechanism for such effects, although at flux density levels significantly higher than the ones encountered in epidemiological studies, radical homoeostasis and levels of stress response proteins can be affected. Here, we report on the influence of MF exposure (50-Hz sine wave; 1 h; 0.025-0.10 mT; vertical or horizontal MF exposure direction) on different cellular parameters (proliferation, cell cycle distribution, superoxide radical anion, and HSP70 protein levels) in the human leukaemia cell line K562. The positive control heat treatment (42°C, 1 h) did not affect either cell proliferation or superoxide radical anion production but caused accumulation of cells in the G2 phase and increased the stress protein HSP70. MF exposure (0.10 mT, 1 h) did not affect either cell cycle kinetics or proliferation. Both vertical and horizontal MF exposures for 1 h caused significantly and transiently increased HSP70 levels (>twofold), at several flux densities, compared to sham controls and also compared to heat treatment. This exposure also increased (30-40%) the levels of the superoxide radical anion, comparable to the positive control PMA. Addition of free radical scavengers (melatonin or 1,10-phenantroline) inhibited the MF-induced increase in HSP70. In conclusion, an early response to ELF MF in K562 cells seems to be an increased amount of oxygen radicals, leading to HSP70 induction. Furthermore, the results suggest that there is a flux density threshold where 50-Hz MF exerts its effects on K562 cells, at or below 0.025 mT, and also that it is the MF, and not the induced electric field, which is the active parameter.