Nitric oxide is a short-lived reactive mediator that inhibits bone marrow (BM) cell proliferation induced by granulocyte-macrophage colony- stimulating factor (GM-CSF). The present studies show that nitric oxide also inhibits macrophage colony-stimulating factor (M-CSF)-induced growth of mouse BM cells, an effect that was dependent on the presence of an inflammatory mediator and blocked by the nitric oxide synthase inhibitor, NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (L-NMA). Treatment of mice with the hematotoxicant benzene (800 mg/kg, intraperitoneally, two times per day, for 2 days) resulted in a significant increase in nitric oxide production by BM cells stimulated with lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and interferon gamma alone or in combination with M-CSF or GM-CSF. Cells from benzene-treated mice also displayed increased sensitivity to the growth-promoting effects of M-CSF and GM-CSF. These results suggest that benzene treatment of mice primes BM cells to inducers of nitric oxide. Northern blot analysis showed that this was, at least in part, caused by increased expression of mRNA for inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS). Surprisingly, treatment of mice with L-NMA was found to cause a depression in BM cell proliferation and to potentiate benzene-induced decreases in BM cellularity and increases in nitric oxide production. L-NMA administration also augmented nitric oxide production by BM cells. These data indicate that L-NMA is hematotoxic and suggest that it may have actions distinct from inhibition of nitric oxide synthase in the BM.