The spraying of a paint formula (Acramin F system) had led to severe pulmonary disease in textile printing sprayers in Spain and Algeria (Ardystil syndrome). In order to elucidate the underlying mechanisms of the toxicity of this paint and its main polymeric components, Acramin FWR, Acramin FWN, Acrafix FHN, and Acramoll W, we have undertaken studies using a battery of different cell-types and assessing in vitro cytotoxicity by measuring LDH leakage. This study shows that, as in in vivo studies, the three polycationic paint components, Acramin FWR (a polyurea), Acramin FWN (a polyamide-amine), and Acrafix FHN (a polyamine) exhibited considerable cytotoxicity (LC50 generally below 100 microg/ml for an incubation of 20-24 h) in vitro, while Acramoll W, which is not a polycation, was almost non-toxic (in the concentration range tested). The cytotoxicity was comparable in primary cultures of rat and human type II pneumocytes and alveolar macrophages as well as in the pulmonary cell line A549 and the hepatic cell line HepG2. In human erythrocytes, the toxicity was less pronounced. We speculate that the multiple positive charges play an important role in the toxic mechanism. It is concluded that Acramin FWR and Acramin FWN have similar intrinsic toxicity and that these polymeric compounds, which have no irritant properties or systemic toxicity when given orally, exert a high, unexpected, degree of cytotoxicity.