Phagocytes are able to generate reactive oxygen species by an activatable NADPH oxidase system. We investigated the inhibition of NADPH oxidase activation by a methoxy-substituted catechol, apocynin. Oxygen uptake by neutrophils incubated with 300 microM apocynin was completely inhibited at 7 min after addition of serum-treated zymosan (STZ), with a lagtime of inhibition of 2 to 3 min. The lagtime of effect of apocynin in neutrophils relatively deficient of myeloperoxidase was about 50% longer when compared with normal cells. Inhibition of the STZ-induced respiratory burst by apocynin was also observed in human eosinophils but not in human alveolar macrophages. Immunoblots of neutrophil membranes, isolated at 2 and 7 min after STZ stimulation of neutrophils, demonstrated translocation of the cytosolic oxidase components p47-phox and p67-phox to the membrane fraction. Translocation at 7 min after STZ stimulation was markedly reduced when the neutrophils had been incubated with 300 microM apocynin, but translocation was normal after 2 min of stimulation. These properties suggest that apocynin is an intracellular inhibitor of the assembly of NADPH oxidase in neutrophils and eosinophils and that apocynin requires conversion by peroxidases to exert its inhibitory effect. The capacity of neutrophils for intracellular killing of Staphylococcus aureus was not affected by apocynin. The potential therapeutic value of apocynin was demonstrated in vitro by its ability to protect secretory leukocyte proteinase inhibitor from oxidative inactivation by neutrophils.