As a result of continuous digestion of iron-containing metalloproteins, the lysosomes within normal cells contain a pool of labile, redox-active, low-molecular-weight iron, which may make these organelles particularly susceptible to oxidative damage. Oxidant-mediated destabilization of lysosomal membranes with release of hydrolytic enzymes into the cell cytoplasm can lead to a cascade of events eventuating in cell death (either apoptotic or necrotic depending on the magnitude of the insult). To assess the importance of the intralysosomal pool of redox-active iron, we have temporarily blocked lysosomal digestion by exposing cells to the lysosomotropic alkalinizing agent, ammonium chloride (NH(4)Cl). The consequent increase in lysosomal pH (from ca. 4.5 to > 6) inhibits intralysosomal proteolysis and, hence, the continuous flow of reactive iron into this pool. Preincubation of J774 cells with 10 mM NH(4)Cl for 4 h dramatically decreased apoptotic death caused by subsequent exposure to H(2)O(2), and the protection was as great as that afforded by the powerful iron chelator, desferrioxamine (which probably localizes predominantly in the lysosomal compartment). Sulfide-silver cytochemical detection of iron revealed a pronounced decrease in lysosomal content of redox-active iron after NH(4)Cl exposure, probably due to diminished intralysosomal digestion of iron-containing material coupled with continuing iron export from this organelle. Electron paramagnetic resonance experiments revealed that hydroxyl radical formation, readily detectable in control cells following H(2)O(2) addition, was absent in cells preexposed to 10 mM NH(4)Cl. Thus, the major pool of redox-active, low-molecular-weight iron may be located within the lysosomes. In a number of clinical situations, pharmacologic strategies that minimize the amount or reactivity of intralysosomal iron should be effective in preventing oxidant-induced cell death.