Oleic (C18:1), linoleic (C18:2), linolenic (C18:3) and arachidonic (C20:4) acids were compared for their toxic effects upon cultured rat heart muscle and endothelioid cells. The free fatty acids (FFA) were bound to albumin (6:1) and tested at concentrations from 5 x 10(-5)M to 5 x 10(-4)M. Reduction of cell viability (51Cr release) and in situ mitochondrial and lysosomal labilization were used as indices of injury. Oleic acids was non-toxic at all times and concentrations tested while linoleic acid increased cell death only in muscle cells after 32 h. Arachidonic acid, by contrast, demonstrated significant toxicity as early as 2 h while both linolenic and arachidonic acids produced major injury at longer durations. A detergent effect was excluded as the injury mechanism because of marked differences in the toxicities of the individual FFA. The similarity in the effects of linolenic and arachidonic acids would appear to exclude prostaglandins as responsible toxic products.