Cationic local anesthetics have been reported to influence cellular responses to surface stimuli by interfering with the function of microtubules and microfilaments. Since unimpaired microtubule and microfilament functions are required by human polymorphonuclear leukocytes in order to respond normally to surface stimulation, we have studied effects of the local anesthetic, tetracaine on the function and morphology of these cells in vitro. Tetracaine (0.25--1.0 mM) significantly reduced extracellular release of the lysosomal enzymes, beta-glucuronidase and lysozyme from polymorphonuclear leukocytes exposed to serum-treated zymosan (a particulate stimulus), zymosan-treated serum (a soluble stimulus), and to the surface-active lectin, concanavalin A. Tetracaine also significantly reduced superoixde anion production (superoxide dismutase-inhibitable cytochrome c reduction) by these cells. Tetrancaine was not cytotoxic and its effects could be reversed completely by washing cells once with buffer. Electron microscope examination of tetracaine-treated cells revealed marked alterations of surface membranes. Microtubules and microfilaments appeared normal in "resting" polymorphonuclear leukocytes, but the increase in microtubules normally observed in stimulated cells was not seen after tetracaine treatment. These results suggest that tetracaine interferes with those interactions between immune reactants and the polymorphonuclear leukocyte cell surface which provoke exocytosis and increased oxidative metabolism.