The present study was designed to identify the free radicals generated during the electrolysis of the solution used to perfuse isolated rat heart Langendorff preparations. The high reactivity and very short half-life of oxygen free radicals make their detection and identification difficult. A diamagnetic organic molecule (spin trap) can be used to react with a specific radical to produce a more stable secondary radical or "spin adduct" detected by electron spin resonance (ESR). Isovolumic left ventricular systolic pressure (LVSP) and left ventricular end diastolic pressure (LVEDP) were measured by a fluid-filled latex balloon inserted into the left ventricle. The coronary flow was measured by effluent collection. Electrolysis was performed with constant currents of 0.5, 1, 1.5, 3, 5, 7.5, and 10 mA generated by a Grass stimulator and applied to the perfusion solution for 1 min. A group of experiments was done using a 1.5 mA current and a Krebs-Henseleit (K-H) solution containing free radical scavengers (superoxide dismutase (SOD): 100 IU/ml or mannitol: 50 mM). Heart function rapidly declined in hearts perfused with K-H buffer that had been electrolyzed for 1 min. The addition of mannitol (50 mM) to the perfusion solution had no effect on baseline cardiac function before electrolysis while SOD (100 IU/ml) increased the coronary flow. However, SOD was more effective than the mannitol in protecting the heart against decreased of cardiac function, 5 min after the end of electrolysis. Samples of the K-H medium subjected to electrolysis were collected in cuvettes containing a final concentration of 125 mM 5,5-dimethyl-1-pyrroline-N-oxide (DMPO) and analyzed by spectroscopy. The ESR spectrum consisted of a quartet signal (hyperfine couplings aN = aH = 14.9 G) originating from the hydroxyl adduct signal, DMPO-OH. The intensity of the DMPO-OH signal remained stable during the 60 s of electrolysis and the quantity of free radicals induced by electrolysis was directly proportional to the intensity of the current. The addition of mannitol and SOD to the perfusate scavenged the hydroxyl radicals present in the solution, suggesting that both hydroxyl and superoxide radicals were formed during electrolysis.