Abstract The synthesis of total cellular proteins in Escherichia coli K12 was studied in batch culture following exposure of cells to low concentrations of monochlorophenol, pentachlorophenol and cadmium chloride. Changes in protein patterns were identified after pulse-chase labelling of proteins with [35S]methionine and subsequent two-dimensional gel electrophoresis (2D-PAGE). We demonstrated that besides the induction of some stress proteins, also a transient decrease in the rate of synthesis of other proteins occurred. Two of these proteins were identified as OmpF and aspartate transcarbamoylase (ATCase). Their transient repression appeared to be a general response to stress elicited by different pollutants and may therefore be used as a general and sensitive early warning system for pollutant stress.