The detection of a possible genotoxic effect of surface water treated with disinfectants for potabilization is the aim of the present work. The Comet assay and the micronucleus test were applied in circulating erythrocytes of Cyprinus carpio. Young specimens (20–30 g) were exposed in experimental basins, built within the potabilization plant of Castiglione del Lago (Perugia, Italy). In this plant the water of the Trasimeno Lake is treated and disinfected for potabilization before it is distributed to the people in the net of drinkable water. A continuous flow of water at a constant rate was supplied to basins; the water was continuously treated at a constant concentration with one of the three tested disinfectants (sodium hypochlorite, peracetic acid and chloride dioxide), one control basin being supplied with untreated water. Three sampling campaigns were performed: October 2000, February 2001 and June 2001. Repeated blood samplings through intracardiac punctures allowed to follow the same fish populations after different exposure times: before introduction of the disinfectant, and 10 or 20 days afterwards. An additional blood sampling was performed 3 h after addition of the disinfectant in other, simultaneously exposed, fish populations. Genotoxic damage was shown in fish exposed to water disinfected with sodium hypochlorite and chloride dioxide. The Comet assay showed an immediate response, i.e. DNA damage that was induced directly in circulating erythrocytes, whereas micronuclei reached their highest frequencies at later sampling times, when a genotoxic damage in stem cells of the cephalic kidney is expressed in circulating erythrocytes. The quality of the untreated surface water seems to be the most important parameter for the long-term DNA damage in circulating erythrocytes.