Using octadecyl functional groups (C18) bonded to silica gel as sorbent and methanol as eluent, the flow injection sorbent extraction features of dialkyldithiophosphates (RO)2P(S)S- as the chelating agent for cadmium, copper and lead was investigated in respect of the effects of pH, alkyl substituent group, reagent concentration and masking agent, with flame atomic absorption spectrometric detection. The elements are quantitatively extracted with the short-alkyl-chain reagents (R up to propyl) in acidic medium. The extractability decreases with the number of carbon atoms in the alkyl groups of the reagents and with the reagent concentration when the alkyl groups are larger than butyl, but masking agents increase the extractability. An explanation proposed for this effect is the formation of polynuclear chelates. Diethyldithiophosphate can be used for the selective determination of cadmium, copper and lead in digested solid environmental samples. With 20 s sample loading at 8.7 ml min-1, the enhancement factors are 35 for cadmium and copper or 26 for lead; the detection limits (3σ) are 0.8, 1.4 and 10.0 μg 1-1 for cadmium, copper and lead, respectively.