Carotenoids have been hypothesized to facilitate immune function and act as free–radical scavengers, thereby minimizing the frequency of mutations. Populations of animals exposed to higher levels of free radicals are thus expected to demonstrate reduced sexual coloration if use of carotenoids for free–radical scavenging is traded against use for sexual signals. The intensity of carotenoid–based sexual coloration was compared among three populations of barn swallows Hirundo rustica differing in exposure to radioactive contamination. Lymphocyte and immunoglobulin concentrations were depressed, whereas the heterophil:lymphocyte ratio, an index of stress, was enhanced in Chernobyl swallows compared to controls. Spleen size was reduced in Chernobyl compared to that of two control populations. Sexual coloration varied significantly among populations, with the size of a secondary sexual character (the length of the outermost tail feathers) being positively related to coloration in the two control populations, but not in the Chernobyl population. Thus the positive covariation between coloration and sexual signalling disappeared in the population subject to intense radioactive contamination. These findings suggest that the reliable signalling function of secondary sexual characters breaks down under extreme environmental conditions, no longer providing reliable information about the health status of males.