The metal chelator and anti-oxidant pyrollidine dithiocarbamate (PDTC) has been used extensively in studies implicating reactive oxygen intermediates in the activation of nuclear factor kappa B (NF kappa B). In agreement with other studies, we have shown that PDTC inhibits NF kappa B activation in response to the pro-inflammatory cytokines interleukin 1 (IL1) and tumour necrosis factor (TNF). However, we have found that the inhibition was reversed by treatment of inhibited nuclear extracts with the reducing agent 2-mercaptoethanol. This was observed in extracts prepared from IL1-treated EL4.NOB-1 thymoma cells and TNF-treated Jurkat E6.1 lymphoma cells. These results suggested that the inhibition was caused by oxidation of NF kappa B on a sensitive thiol, possibly on the p50 subunit (which was detected in NF kappa B complexes in both cell types), and not by inhibition of the activation pathway. The possibility that PDTC was acting as a pro-oxidant was therefore investigated. PDTC caused an increase in oxidized glutathione, suggesting that it acts as an oxidizing agent in the cells tested rather than as an anti-oxidant. Similar results were obtained with diamide, a compound designed to oxidize glutathione. Finally, an increase in the ratio of oxidized to reduced glutathione was shown to inhibit NF kappa B-DNA binding in vitro. On the basis of these results we suggest that, while NF kappa B activation is unaffected by PDTC, DNA binding is inhibited through a mechanism involving a shift towards oxidizing conditions, and that this is the mechanism of action of both PDTC and diamide in the cells tested here.