Endothelial damage may follow exposure to toxic oxygen species generated by closely apposed ("marginated") granulocytes. Because iron markedly catalyzes oxidant damage in diverse systems, we wondered whether intercalculated heme, and/or its constituent iron, might potentiate oxidant damage of endothelium. Cultured monolayers of porcine aortic endothelial cells were exposed for brief periods to purified hemin. Uptake of heme was rapid, dose dependent, and not reversible by buffer or serum washes. Despite high levels of cell-associated heme, no direct heme-mediated cytotoxicity occurred, but heme-loaded endothelium became highly sensitive to oxidant challenge by (a) reagent H2O2, (b) enzymatically generated oxidants (xanthine/xanthine oxidase), or (c) phorbol-activated polymorphonuclear leukocytes. An increase in endothelial cell lipid peroxidation accompanied heme-augmented oxidant cytolysis, and both parameters were reduced in parallel by micromolar amounts of the hydrophobic oxygen radical scavenger/iron chelator U74500A. Endothelial uptake of heme was inhibited by a specific heme-binding protein, hemopexin. Concomitantly, hemopexin completely blocked augmented H2O2- and polymorphonuclear leukocyte-mediated cytotoxicity but only if added simultaneously and stoichiometrically with hemin. Significant loss of protection occurred if hemopexin addition was delayed 15 minutes, and protection was completely lost after a 60-minute interval. The iron moiety of heme was critical to oxidant sensitization because neither iron-free protoporphyrin IX nor tin-protoporphyrin was able to sensitize endothelial cells to H2O2 or activated polymorphonuclear leukocytes. These results may provide mechanistic insights into atherogenesis, reperfusion injury, and the organ injury accompanying hemoglobinemia or myoglobinemia.