1. Metal salts can inhibit cell activity through direct toxicity to critical cellular molecules and structures. On the other hand, they can also change cell behaviour by inducing specific genes (including genes encoding members of the metallothionein [MT] gene family). Therefore, transition metals may affect cell functions either by acting as a toxin, or by transmitting or influencing signals controlling gene expression. 2. To explore the latter possibility, we measured the ability of low, non-toxic metal pretreatment to alter immune cell behaviour. We previously found that pretreatment of human monocytes with zinc induces metallothionein gene expression and alters their capacity to undergo a bacterial lipopolysaccharide-induced respiratory burst. We showed here that cadmium and mercury salts, at concentrations that exert no discernible toxicity, inhibit activation of human monocytic leukemia (THP-1) cells. CdCl2 1 microM, ZnCl2 20-40 microM or HgCl2 2 microM pretreatment for 20 h induced MT-2 mRNA and total MT protein accumulation and had no effect on proliferation potential or metabolic activity, but significantly inhibited the ability of subsequent lipopolysaccharide treatment to induce the oxidative burst, increased adhesion to plastic, and MT-2 and interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta) mRNA accumulation. 3. The phenomenon of metal-induced suppression of monocyte activation, at metal concentrations that have no effect on cell viability, has important implications for assessment of acceptable levels of human exposure to cadmium, zinc and mercury.