For the development of mechanistic assays in immunotoxicology, the phenotype, cytokine production, and stimulatory function of dendritic cells (DCs) were assessed after incubation with the chemical haptens aminophenol, chlorpromazine hydrochloride, dinitrochlorobenzene (DNCB), and with the DNCB-corresponding tolerogen DCNB, the metal allergen nickel sulfate, the irritants sodium dodecyl sulfate and benzoic acid, as well as with staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB) and lipopolysaccharide (LPS). DCs were differentiated from human monocytes by in vitro exposure to GM-CSF and interleukin-4 (IL-4) for 7 days. Flow cytometric data revealed that only representative haptens increased the surface expression of HLA-DR, CD86, CD40, and of CD54 on DCs when compared to irritants or to the tolerogen. This event was associated with an increased ability of DCs to stimulate T cell proliferation. Moreover, after incubation with the haptens, but not with the irritants or the tolerogen, a higher production of TNF-alpha by DCs was observed. Under our experimental conditions, no release of IL-1beta, IL-10, or IL-12 was detected. Compared to the activation elicited by haptens, SEB strongly up-regulated HLA-DR and costimulatory molecule expression. In agreement with this effect, there was a marked release of TNF-alpha and a slight production of IL-12. IL-1beta and IL-10 were not detected in the culture medium. Finally, SEB-pulsed DCs showed a strong T-cell-stimulating activity. These data underline the activating potential of haptens versus irritants or a tolerogen on DC functions. The different levels of DC activation by haptens and SEB suggested that distinct cellular events were involved.