We have investigated the polarity of the efflux of the intracellular pH fluorochrome 2',7'-bis(2-carboxyethyl)-5(6)-carboxyfluorescein (BCECF) from layers of epithelial Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK, Strains I and II) and human intestinal (Caco-2, HCT-8 and T84) cells grown on porous membranes. In Strain I MDCK cells, BCECF efflux was effectively reduced by indomethacin (50% inhibition with 100 microM) and 5-nitro-2-(3-phenylpropyl-amino)-benzoate (NPPB; 50% inhibition with 10 microM). Replacement of external Cl- with bromide, iodide or nitrate did not alter BCECF efflux, while substitution with methanesulphonate resulted in a small but significant reduction. All five cell lines form confluent epithelial layers when grown on porous membranes. Efflux of BCECF from Strain I MDCK epithelial layers into the apical solution was approximately three times greater than into the basal solution. Addition of indomethacin to the apical solution attenuated efflux into the apical but not the basal solution, while basal indomethacin was effective against basal efflux. NPPB has a similar specificity of action. Adrenaline, a stimulant of electrogenic Cl- secretion, did not alter the pattern of BCECF efflux. BCECF efflux was also polarized, with apical efflux greater than basal efflux, in MDCK Strain II and Caco-2 epithelial layers. In contrast, BCECF efflux into the basal and apical media was equivalent in layers formed from HCT-8 and T84 cells. However, indomethacin reduced efflux in all five epithelial lines, although the relative sensitivities of the apical and basal efflux rates to indomethacin varied, as did the sensitivity to the sidedness of application of indomethacin. In MDCK and HCT-8 epithelial layers, transepithelial vinblastine secretion mediated by P-glycoprotein was not inhibited by indomethacin. The data are consistent with the hypothesis that BCECF efflux is a manifestation of a novel ATP-dependent xenobiotic secretory efflux mechanism in renal and gastrointestinal epithelia. The factors regulating the polarity of BCECF efflux, both the indomethacin-sensitive and -insensitive components, have yet to be elucidated.