The effects of many chemicals on cellular processes are governed by their ability to enter the cell, which is in turn a function of the composition of the cell's external environment. To examine this relationship, the effect of serum in cell culture medium on the bioavailability of cytochrome P450 1A (CYP1A)-inducing compounds was determined in PLHC-1 (Poeciliopsis lucida hepatocellular carcinoma) cells. The presence of 10% calf serum in the medium increased the EC50 (effective concentration to achieve 50% maximal response) for induction of ethoxyresorufin O-deethylase (EROD) activity by 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) 20-fold as compared to treatment in serum-free medium. Measurement of [3H]TCDD uptake and Ah receptor binding indicated that the apparent difference in potencies was a result of decreased bioavailability in the presence of serum, effectively reducing the concentration of TCDD within the cells. Induction of EROD and CYP1A protein in response to treatment with each of three coplanar polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB congeners 77, 126, and 169) was similarly affected by serum, although the magnitude varied among inducers and assays. Relative potencies (calculated as EC50TCDD / EC50PCB) for EROD induction by the three PCBs were significantly higher in the absence of serum. However, serum showed no significant effect on the relative potencies for CYP1A protein induction. These results demonstrate that measured inducing potencies, and relative potencies for EROD induction, by halogenated aromatic hydrocarbons are strongly dependent on the composition of culture medium, which can lead to artificial differences in comparisons among cell types.