The records of the catheter laboratory at St George's Hospital between 1983-1988 were reviewed to determine how often emergency coronary bypass surgery was performed because of a complication arising during elective coronary arteriography. A total of 11,216 cardiac procedures were performed; 5781 were confined to left ventricular angiography and coronary arteriography in patients with suspected coronary artery disease. Fourteen patients, whose investigation had been considered routine, suffered profound circulatory collapse during the procedure. Emergency cardiac surgery was undertaken in 13, with long term survival in 10. This experience suggests that, even in patients considered to be at low risk, there were major complications requiring emergency coronary surgery in at least 2.4 per 1000 coronary arteriograms performed. Survival after emergency cardiac surgery in these patients was 77%. These findings and the access to cardiac surgery should be considered when the development of facilities for cardiac catheterisation is planned.