Chronic exposure of humans to benzene (BZ), a myelotoxin, causes aplastic anemia and acute leukemia. The stromal macrophage that produces interleukin-1 (IL-1), a cytokine essential for hematopoiesis, is a target of BZ's toxicity. Monocyte dysfunction and decreased IL-1 production have been shown to be involved in aplastic anemia in humans. Hydroquinone (HQ), a toxic bone marrow (BM) metabolite of BZ, causes time- and concentration-dependent inhibition of processing of the 34-Kd pre-interleukin-1 alpha (IL-1 alpha) to the 17-Kd mature cytokine in murine P388D1 macrophages and BM stromal macrophages, as measured by Western immunoblots of cell lysate proteins using a polyclonal rabbit antimurine IL-1 alpha antibody. HQ over a 10-fold concentration range had no effect on the lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-induced production of pre- IL-1 alpha precursor or on cell viability or DNA and protein synthesis. Stromal macrophages obtained from the femoral BM of C57Bl/6 mice exposed to BZ (600 or 800 mg/kg body weight) for 2 days were incapable of processing the 34-Kd pre-IL-1 alpha to the mature 17-Kd cytokine when stimulated in culture with LPS. Stromal macrophages from mice coadministered BZ and indomethacin, a prostaglandin H synthase (PHS) inhibitor that has been shown to prevent BZ-induced myelotoxic and genotoxic effects in mice when coadministered with benzene were able to convert the pre-IL-1 alpha to mature cytokine. Administration of recombinant murine IL-1 alpha (rMuIL-1 alpha) to mice before a dose of BZ that causes severe depression of BM cellularity completely prevents BM depression, most probably by bypassing the inability of the stromal macrophage in BZ-treated animals to process pre-IL-1 alpha to the mature cytokine.