We tested the effects of four eosinophil granule cationic proteins: major basic protein (MBP), eosinophil cationic protein (ECP), eosinophil peroxidase (EPO), and eosinophil-derived neurotoxin (EDN), on guinea pig tracheal epithelium in vitro. Examination by inverted microscopy revealed that MBP, both the form stabilized by alkylation of sulfhydryl groups as well as the native form of the molecule, ECP, EPO by itself, as well as EPO + H2O2 + halide, but not EDN, cause dose-related damage to the tracheal epithelium. The lowest concentrations of MBP and ECP causing damage were 10 and 100 micrograms/ml, respectively. In contrast, EDN, although biochemically similar to ECP, did not damage the tracheal epithelium in concentrations of up to 200 micrograms/ml. MBP caused exfoliation, as well as bleb formation and ciliostasis. EPO in the presence of the H2O2-producing enzyme glucose oxidase (GO), Cl-, 0.11 M, and iodide caused ciliostasis, bleb formation, and exfoliation of epithelial cells at concentrations as low as 1 U/ml (3.9 micrograms/ml). EPO + GO in the presence of Cl-, 0.11 M, alone or with Cl- and l-, 10(-4) M, or Cl- and Br-, 5 x 10(-5) M, were all toxic to epithelium. Surprisingly, EPO by itself caused partial ciliostasis, bleb formation, and exfoliation of epithelial cells in a dose-related manner at concentrations as low as 10 to 30 U/ml (39 to 121 micrograms/ml). These results confirm prior observations showing the toxicity of MBP to tracheal epithelium and indicate that ECP and EPO alone, as well as EPO + GO + halide, cause damage. Thus, several eosinophil granule proteins are able to damage respiratory epithelium.