The condensed tannin present in cotton mill dust profoundly alters the functional capabilities of resident alveolar macrophages. Previous studies from this laboratory have shown that in vitro exposure of rabbit resident alveolar macrophages to condensed tannin significantly inhibits the ability of these cells to produce reactive oxygen intermediates or to ingest particles. In the present study, we demonstrate that condensed tannin also alters arachidonic acid (C20:4) metabolism in these cells. Exposure of rabbit resident alveolar macrophages to condensed tannin results in the time- and dose-dependent release of C20:4 from the membrane phospholipids. The release of C20:4 occurred only at tannin concentrations greater than 25 micrograms/ml and was maximal 90 min after the onset of exposure. The EC50 for release was 75 micrograms/ml. Exposure to 100 micrograms/ml tannin resulted in the release of 20 +/- 3% of the [14C]C20:4 incorporated in the cell membrane. In comparison, exposure to 160 micrograms/ml zymosan resulted in the release of 14 +/- 4% of the [14C]C20:4. For both tannin and zymosan, phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylinositol were the principal sources of the released C20:4. Approximately 63% of the C20:4 released after zymosan stimulation was further metabolized, mainly via the cyclooxygenase pathway. The major metabolites were 6-keto-prostaglandin F1 alpha, prostaglandin F2 alpha, and prostaglandin E2. In contrast, only 24% of the C20:4 released by tannin was subsequently further metabolized. The metabolites formed were essentially evenly distributed between products of the cyclooxygenase pathway and the lipoxygenase pathway. Exposure of alveolar macrophages to 50 micrograms/ml tannin for 30 min reduced the ability of the cells to subsequently incorporate C20:4 by 50 to 70%. In contrast, exposure of the cells to 160 mg/ml zymosan for 30 min had only a minimal effect on the subsequent ability of these cells to incorporate C20:4. These results indicate that tannin promotes C20:4 release, at least in part, by inhibiting its reacylation back into phospholipids, a mechanism that differs from that of zymosan.