Sulfasalazine and, to a lesser extent, 5-aminosalicylic acid and N-acetyl-aminosalicylic acid, were found to block production of 5-hydroxy-6,8,11,14-eicosatetraenoic acid, leukotriene B4 (LTB4), and LTB4 stereoisomers from both exogenous and endogenous [14C]arachidonic acid (14C-AA) in ionophore A23187 (1 microgram/ml)-stimulated human neutrophils. Lipids were assessed by thin-layer chromatography and reverse-phase high-pressure lipid chromatography. Sulfasalazine blocked the synthesis of these metabolites from both exogenous and endogenous AA, but was more effective in blocking the metabolism of exogenous than endogenous AA. The IC50 for sulfasalazine in blocking the synthesis of LTB4 was 0.8 mM when exogenous AA was the substrate and 2.8 mM when endogenous AA was the substrate. N-Acetyl-aminosalicylic acid showed a similar pattern, but was less effective than sulfasalazine (IC50 for exogenous AA was 5.4 mM, and for endogenous AA was 8.0 mM). 5-Aminosalicylic acid had similar effects with an IC50 of 6.0 and 6.4 mM respectively. Sulfasalazine but not 5-aminosalicylic acid inhibited the incorporation of arachidonic acid into phospholipids and triglycerides. Sulfasalazine, but not its metabolites, inhibited the release of 14C-AA from membrane phospholipids in a dose-dependent manner (46.0% inhibition with 4 mM sulfasalazine). Sulfasalazine also blocked the metabolism of exogenously added LTB4 to 20-OH LTB4 and 20-COOH LTB4 with an IC50 of 2 mM. Our findings suggest that under physiologic conditions, with endogenous AA as a substrate, sulfasalazine acts as an inhibitor of lipoxygenase, of phospholipase A2 and of LTB4 metabolism, whereas 5-aminosalicylic acid and N-acetyl-aminosalicylic acid inhibit only lipoxygenase.