Enhanced oxidative stress in haemodialysis (HD) patients may be considered as a risk factor for accelerated atherosclerosis. Reduced antioxidant defences include impairment in enzyme activities and decreased plasma levels of hydrophilic vitamin C (vit C), and cellular levels of lipophilic vitamin E (vit E). We investigated plasma levels of vit C in 19 patients undergoing regular haemodiafiltration (HDF) (mean age 62+/-7 years) and in 1846 healthy elderly subjects (HS) (mean age 69+/-5 years). The contribution of convection and diffusion was determined using paired filtration dialysis (PFD), a modified HDF technique which physically separates convective from diffusive fluxes. Blood samples were collected before and after the HDF session; in addition at 60 min of HDF, samples were drawn from arterial lines (AL) and venous lines (VL), dialysate (D) and ultrafiltrate (UF). Blood levels of total vit C were determined using an HPLC fluorescence method. Markers of oxidative stress were also assessed in both populations as follows: levels of malondialdehyde (MDA) were determined by fluorometric assay, measurements of advanced oxidation protein products (AOPP) and glutathione peroxidase (GSH-Px) activity were performed by spectrophotometric assay, and plasma vit E content was obtained by an HPLC procedure. A significant reduction in plasma vit C level was observed in HDF patients when compared with HS (1.6+/-1.4 microg/ml in HDF vs 6.6+/-3.7 microg/ml in HS; P<0.01). The HDF session was associated with a dramatic reduction in vit C levels (1.87+/-1.57 microg/ml before HDF and 0.98+/-0.68 microg/ml after HDF); at 60 min of HDF, concentrations were as follows: AL=1.35+/-1.27 microg/ml; VL=0.37+/-0.31 microg/ml, D=0.40+/-0.34 microg/ml, UF=1.24+/-1.18 microg/ml; corresponding to a diffusive flux of 271 microg/min and a convective flux of 126 microg/min. Total loss of vit C could be assessed at 66 mg/session (8--230 mg/session). According to this loss of vit C, presence of an oxidative stress was demonstrated in HD population as shown by a significant increase in MDA (1.66+/-0.27 microM in HD vs 0.89+/-0.25 microM in HS; P<0.01) and AOPP (77.5+/-29.3 microM in HD vs 23.5+/-13.2 microM in HS; P<0.01) levels, and a decrease in GSH-Px activity (259.2+/-106.3 U/l in HD vs 661.2+/-92.2 U/l in HS; P<0.01). No change in plasma vit E between both populations (30.7+/-9.1 microM in HD vs 35.3+/-7.34 microM in HS) was observed. These results suggest that HDF with highly permeable membranes is associated with a significant loss of vit C. Diffusive transport is responsible for two-thirds whereas convective phenomenon accounts for only one-third of this loss.