Chemically reactive epoxide metabolites have been implicated in various forms of drug and chemical toxicity. Naphthalene, which is metabolized to a 1,2-epoxide, has been used as a model compound in this study in order to investigate the effects of perturbation of detoxication mechanisms on the in vitro toxicity of epoxides in the presence of human liver microsomes. Naphthalene (100 microM) was metabolized to cytotoxic, protein-reactive and stable, but not genotoxic, metabolites by human liver microsomes. The metabolism-dependent cytotoxicity and covalent binding to protein of naphthalene were significantly higher in the presence of phenobarbitone-induced mouse liver microsomes than with human liver microsomes. The ratio of trans-1,2-dihydrodiol to 1-naphthol was 8.6 and 0.4 with the human and the induced mouse microsomes, respectively. The metabolism-dependent toxicity of naphthalene toward human peripheral mononuclear leucocytes was not affected by the glutathione transferase mu status of the co-incubated cells. Trichloropropene oxide (TCPO; 30 microM), an epoxide hydrolase inhibitor, increased the human liver microsomal-dependent cytotoxicity (19.6 +/- 0.9% vs 28.7 +/- 1.0%; P = 0.02) and covalent binding to protein (1.4 +/- 0.3% vs 2.8 +/- 0.2%; P = 0.03) of naphthalene (100 microM), and reversed the 1,2-dihydrodiol to 1-naphthol ratio from 6.6 (without TCPO) to 2.6, 0.6 and 0.1 at TCPO concentrations of 30, 100 and 500 microM, respectively. Increasing the human liver microsomal protein concentration reduced the cytotoxicity of naphthalene, while increasing its covalent binding to protein and the formation of the 1,2-dihydrodiol metabolite. Co-incubation with glutathione (5 mM) reduced the cytotoxicity and covalent binding to protein of naphthalene by 68 and 64%, respectively. Covalent binding to protein was also inhibited by gestodene, while stable metabolite formation was reduced by gestodene (250 microM) and enoxacin (250 microM). The study demonstrates that human liver cytochrome P450 enzymes metabolize naphthalene to a cytotoxic and protein-reactive, but not genotoxic, metabolite which is probably an epoxide. This is rapidly detoxified by microsomal epoxide hydrolase, the efficiency of which can be readily determined by measurement of the ratio of the stable metabolites, naphthalene 1,2-dihydrodiol and 1-naphthol.