Human fibroblasts in primary culture released reactive oxygen species upon exposure to synovial fluid obtained by joint aspiration from twelve patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. The primary radical produced was O-2 as determined by ESR spin trapping and cytochrome c reduction. In contrast to the oxidative burst in granulocytes and monocytes. radical formation proceeded continuously for at least four hours. Low-level chemiluminescence was increased upon exposure to inflammatory human synovial fluids. Spectral characteristics and effects of azide and 1,4-diazabicyclo-(2,2,2)-octane led to the conclusion that the photoemissive species were excited carbonyls. Radical production and light emission were not altered either by xanthine or allopurinol. nor by azide. cyanide or rotenone. The O-2; production increased in the presence of NADH or NADPH. making an NAD(P)H oxidase a likely source. The liberation of reactive oxygen species correlated with the number of leukocytes present in the inflammatory joint fluids. but not with the concentrations of immunoglobulins and complement factor C3.