Previous estimates of catecholamine kinetics in human subjects have been based on the measurement of the catecholamine levels in forearm venous plasma. However, the use of forearm venous measurements may introduce considerable error, since venous catecholamine levels may primarily reflect metabolism in the organ drained rather than in the total body. In this study, arterial levels of epinephrine were found to significantly exceed forearm venous levels, both basally (mean +/- SEM, 71 +/- 13 vs. 50 +/- 7 pg/ml; n = 6; P less than 0.05) and during infusions of epinephrine [0.1 microgram/min (112 +/- 9 vs. 77 +/- 11 pg/ml; P less than 0.005) or 2 micrograms/min (862 +/- 71 vs. 437 +/- 66 pg/ml; P less than 0.001)]. During the 2 micrograms/min epinephrine infusion, arterial plasma norepinephrine rose from 191 +/- 37 to 386 +/- 78 pg/ml (P less than 0.001), while venous norepinephrine levels did not change significantly. Fractional extraction (arterial - venous + arterial X 100) of epinephrine across the forearm was 26 +/- 8% in the basal state and increased to 33 +/- 6% and further to 51 +/- 4% during the epinephrine infusions. The addition of propranolol (5 mg, iv, plus an 80 micrograms/min infusion) reduced fractional extraction from 51 +/- 4% to 35 +/- 5%. Whole body clearance of epinephrine, calculated from arterial measurements, was 33 +/- 3 ml/kg . min during the 0.1 microgram/min infusion and 35 +/- 3 ml/kg . min during the 2 micrograms/min epinephrine infusion, values 50% lower than the clearance rates calculated from venous measurements. Propranolol infusion resulted in a fall in whole body clearance to 20 +/- 2 ml/kg . min (P less than 0.001), suggesting that epinephrine clearance is partly dependent on a beta-adrenergic mechanism. Basal endogenous release rate (clearance X basal epinephrine level) was estimated to be approximately 0.18 microgram/min, a value much less than that reported in studies using venous measurements. We conclude that arterial rather than venous measurements should be used to estimate catecholamine kinetics in vivo.