Paraquat is accumulated into the lungs of various species by an active uptake system which also appears to mediate the uptake of endogenous polyamines, such as putrescine. The accumulation of putrescine in the human lung has been previously shown to be mainly located in the type II cells. In the present study, we have studied the mutually competitive inhibition of putrescine and paraquat in human lung slices and the inhibition of putrescine by paraquat or cystamine in isolated human type II pneumocytes. Peripheral lung tissue taken from patients undergoing pneumectomy or lobectomy was used. The initial steps of the cell isolation procedure differed from the literature in that the tissue was first sliced in 0.7 mm thick slices, which were washed in phosphate buffered saline without calcium and magnesium (PBS-), followed by incubations with trypsin. The type II cells were purified and isolated by differential adherence on plastic followed by Percoll gradient centrifugation. Uptake was determined 48 hr after cell isolation. The accumulation of radiolabelled putrescine showed saturation kinetics, with the following apparent kinetic parameters: Km 6.7 and 6.2-7.6 microM and Vmax 2.7 and 3.0-3.4 mumol/g prot/hr for slices and isolated cells, respectively. In the presence of paraquat, putrescine uptake was reduced, in both systems, in a manner compatible with competitive inhibition, with calculated inhibition constants (Ki) of 549-614 and 659-895 microM paraquat for slices and isolated cells, respectively. The accumulation of putrescine in isolated human pneumocytes was strongly reduced in the presence of cystamine, with calculated Ki of 3.7 microM cystamine. These data indicate that putrescine, paraquat and cystamine accumulate in the human lung by the same uptake system, but that the affinities for the three substrates differ. The presence of an uptake system for putrescine in cultured human pulmonary type II is probably useful as a functional viability test.