This study tests the idea that the environmental toxicant, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), affects human trophoblast differentiation and alters the secretion of chorionic gonadotropin (CG). Primary cultures of cytotrophoblast cells were incubated under differentiation-inducing and nondifferentiation-inducing conditions in the presence or absence of different concentrations of TCDD. Levels of immunoreactive CG as well as bioactive CG were measured in culture supernatants. TCDD caused a significant increase in the secretion of immunoreactive CG from differentiated trophoblast cultures but had no effect on the secretion of bioactive hormone. The net effect was a TCDD-dependent reduction in the CG bioactive/immunoreactive (B/I) ratio for differentiated trophoblast cultures. TCDD had no effect on immunoreactive or bioactive CG secretion by undifferentiated trophoblasts. Immunocytochemical studies showed that TCDD had no effect on the morphologic differentiation of trophoblast cells as determined by staining nuclei and desmosomal proteins. On the other hand, immunocytochemical staining for CG was increased in cells exposed to TCDD compared to control cells. These in vitro results support earlier in vivo studies in macaques suggesting that trophoblast is a target for TCCD and that TCDD-induced early pregnancy loss is accompanied by a decrease in the CG B/I ratio.