Organochlorine pesticides are used worldwide. To our knowledge there have been no studies dealing with the effects of these agents under in vitro conditions on human natural killer (NK) cell cytotoxic function. NK cells play a central role in immune defense against tumor development and viral infections. Thus, any agent that interferes with the ability of NK cells to lyse their targets could increase the risk of tumor incidence and/or viral infections. In this study, we examined the effects of organochlorine pesticides and some of their breakdown products on the ability of human NK cells to lyse tumor cells. A total of 11 compounds were tested. The compounds were tested in both purified NK cells as well as a cell preparation that contained other mononuclear cells (predominantly T cells) and NK lymphocytes (referred to as T/NK cells). Lymphocytes were exposed to the compounds for periods of time ranging from 1 hour to 6 days. Exposure of highly purified NK cells to 5 microM alpha-chlordane, gamma-chlordane, 4,4'-DDT, heptachlor, oxychlordane, or pentachlorophenol (PCP) inhibited their ability to destroy K562 tumor-cells by 88+/-5, 92+/-8, 61+/-13%, 64+/-10%, 69+/-11%, 76+/-12%, respectively, after a 24 h exposure. The loss of cytotoxic function seen with alpha-and gamma-chlordane remained essentially constant out to 6 days, while that seen with 4,4'-DDT, oxychordane and PCP increased with longer exposures (6 d). PCP was the most effective of the compounds tested at decreasing NK function. Of the compounds that caused decreased lytic function when tested in purified NK cells, only PCP and oxychordane decreased the lytic function of the T/NK cell preparation after any exposure. The results provide evidence of relative toxic potential for the 11 compounds and their immunomodulatory effects on other mononuclear cells (such as T-cells, B-cells, and monocytes) as well as NK lymphocyte function.