Toluene and its metabolites have been studied with respect to their reactive oxygen species-enhancing potential in isolated systems and in vivo. The induction of reactive oxygen species (ROS) production was assayed using the probe 2',7'-dichlorodihydrofluorescin diacetate (DCFH-DA). Intraperitoneal injection of toluene, benzyl alcohol or benzaldehyde caused a significant elevation in the rate of ROS formation within hepatic mitochondrial fractions (P2). In the brain, only toluene induced ROS formation, while benzyl alcohol and benzaldehyde did not have any effect. Glutathione (GSH) levels were depressed in liver and brain regions from toluene-treated rats. However, no such depression was evident in brains treated with toluene metabolites. P2 fractions from phenobarbital-pretreated rats exhibited a heightened ROS response when challenged with toluene, in vitro. Pretreatment of rats in vivo with 4-methylpyrazole, an alcohol dehydrogenase inhibitor, or sodium cyanamide, an aldehyde dehydrogenase inhibitor, prior to exposure to toluene, caused a significant decrease and increase, respectively, in toluene-stimulated rates of ROS generation in the CNS and liver. Electron spin resonance spectroscopy, employing the spin trap 5,5-dimethyl-1-pyrroline N-oxide (DMPO), was conducted. Incubation of the spin trap with P2 fractions and toluene or benzaldehyde elicited a spectrum corresponding to the hydroxyl radical. Incubation of benzaldehyde with aldehyde dehydrogenase produced a strong signal that was blocked completely by superoxide dismutase and inhibited partially by catalase, suggesting the presence of superoxide radicals and the involvement of the iron-catalyzed Haber-Weiss reaction leading to the production of hydroxyl radicals. Thus, ROS generation during toluene catabolism may occur at two steps: cytochrome P450 oxidation and aldehyde dehydrogenase oxidation. In addition, GSH may play an important role in protection against the induction of ROS generation in the CNS and liver following exposure to toluene.