Several chemicals, including para-aminophenol (PAP), produce kidney damage in the absence of hepatic damage. Selective nephrotoxicity may be related to the ability of the kidney to reabsorb filtered water, thereby raising the intraluminal concentration of toxicants and exposing tubular epithelial cells to higher concentrations than would be present in other tissues. The present experiments tested the hypothesis that hepatocytes and renal epithelial cells exposed to equivalent concentrations of PAP would be equally susceptible to toxicity. Hepatocytes and renal epithelial cells were prepared by collagenase digestion of tissues obtained from female Sprague-Dawley rats. Toxicity was monitored using trypan blue exclusion, oxygen consumption and ATP content. We measured the rate of PAP clearance and formation of PAP-glutathione conjugate by HPLC. We found that renal epithelial cells accumulated trypan blue and showed declines in oxygen consumption and ATP content at significantly lower concentrations of PAP and at earlier time points than hepatocytes. The half-life of PAP in hepatocyte incubations was significantly shorter (0.71+/-0.07 h) than in renal epithelial cell incubations (1.33+/-0.23 h), suggesting that renal epithelial cells were exposed to PAP for longer time periods than hepatocytes. Renal epithelial cells formed significantly less glutathione conjugates of PAP (PAP-SG) than did hepatocytes, consistent with less efficient detoxification of reactive PAP intermediates by renal epithelial cells. Finally, hepatocytes contained significant more reduced glutathione (NPSH) than did renal epithelial cells, possibly explaining the enhanced formation of PAP-SG by this cell population. In conclusion, our data indicates that renal epithelial cells are intrinsically more susceptible to PAP cytotoxicity than are hepatocytes. This enhanced cytotoxicity may be due to longer exposure to PAP and/or reduced detoxification of reactive intermediates due to lower concentrations of reduced NPSH in renal epithelial cells than in hepatocytes.