Recent epidemiological observations suggest that acetaminophen (paracetamol) may contribute to asthma morbidity. Impaired endogenous antioxidant defences may have a role in the pathogenesis of a number of inflammatory pulmonary diseases, including asthma. We studied the effect of acetaminophen on the intracellular level of reduced glutathione (GSH) with and without inhibitors of cytochrome P450 or prostaglandin H synthetase, and TNF-alpha, IL-6 and IL-8 protein production in human alveolar macrophages and type II pneumocytes in vitro. Following a 20 h incubation with acetaminophen, cytotoxicity was apparent from > or = 5 and > or = 10 mM in macrophages and type II pneumocytes, respectively. A time- and concentration-dependent decrease of intracellular GSH occurred after acetaminophen (0.05-1 mM) exposure (1-4 h) in pulmonary macrophages (up to 53%) and type II pneumocytes (up to 34%). Diethyldithiocarbamic acid, potassium ethyl xanthate, and indomethacin decreased significantly acetaminophen-induced GSH depletion in the two cell types tested, suggesting the involvement of cytochrome P450 (mainly CYP2E1) and/or prostaglandin H synthetase. In macrophages, acetaminophen decreased the secretion of TNF-alpha (at 4 and 24 h, concentration-related) and IL-6 (at 24 h, at 0.1 mM), and did not affect significantly IL-8 production. These in vitro observations demonstrate that clinically relevant concentrations of acetaminophen decreased: (i) intracellular GSH in human pulmonary macrophages and type II pneumocytes and (ii) the secretion of TNF-alpha and possibly IL-6 by human pulmonary macrophages. These findings provide experimental plausibility to the challenging observations that frequent use of APAP may be a risk factor for asthma morbidity.