The aim of this work was to precisely determine the sites of the peroxidative action on unsatured lipids by oxygen-derived free radicals and the lytic cell damage on reoxygenated perfused hearts. The cellular load of lipid peroxidation products (malondialdehyde) during the reoxygenation was dependent on PO2. This unfavorable biochemical response was linked to creatine kinase leakage, alteration of coronary flow and mitochondrial injury. When an enzymatic (superoxide dismutase, 290 IU/minute) or tripeptide scavenger of oxygen radicals (reduced glutathione, 0.5 mmol/l) was administered at the end of hypoxia and during reoxygenation, the abnormal intolerance of hypoxic heart to molecular oxygen was significantly weakened; the load of lipid peroxides load, enzyme release, and vascular alteration were all reduced. Moreover, mitochondrial activity was enhanced and the oxygen-induced uncoupling of mitochondrial remained limited: both the respiratory control ratio (RCR) and the ADP/O ratio were higher than in control reoxygenated hearts. The inhibition by rotenone (100 mumol/l) of reoxidation of electron chain transfer during oxygen readmission also reduced the unfavorable cardiac accumulation of lipid peroxidation products and the release of creatine kinase. These data demonstrate that in the oxygen paradox, the peroxidative attack on lipids plays an important role in inducing alterations of sarcolemmal permeability and mitochondrial activity. An uncontrolled reactivation of oxidative function of mitochondria during reoxygenation enhances the synthesis of oxygen-derived free radicals and triggers the peroxidation of cardiac lipids resulting in irreversible injury to cellular and intracellular membranes.