An elevation of mean blood pressure was found in rats treated with low lead (0.01% lead acetate) for 3 months, as contrasted to paired Sprague-Dawley control rats. In these rats, measurement of plasma and urine endothelins-1 and -3 revealed that plasma concentration and urinary excretion of endothelin-3 increased significantly after 3 months (plasma: lead group, 31.8+/-2.2, versus controls, 23.0+1.7 pg/mL, P<.001; urinary excretion: lead group, 46.6+11.7, versus controls, 35.6+6.7 pg/24 h, P<.05), whereas endothelin-1 was unaffected. Plasma and urinary nitric oxide (NO) and cyclic GMP concentrations were not significantly changed. However, assay of plasma and kidney cortex malondialdehyde by high-pressure liquid chromatography, as a measure of reactive oxygen species, was elevated in lead-treated rats compared with that in control rats (plasma: lead group, 4.74+1.27, versus controls, 2.14+.49 micromol/L, P<.001; kidney cortex: lead group, 28.75+3.46, versus controls, 16.38+2.37 nmol/g wet weight, P<.001). There was increased NO synthase activity in lead-treated rat brain cortex and cerebellum. In lead-treated rat kidney cortex, the endothelial constitutive NO synthase protein mass was unaffected, whereas the inducible NO synthase protein mass was increased. These data suggest a balance between increased NO synthesis and degradation (by reactive oxygen species) in lead-treated rats, which results in normal levels of NO. Thus, the hypertension may be related to an increase in the pressure substances, endothelin-3 and reactive oxygen species, rather than to an absolute decrease in nitric NO.