Delta-aminolevulinic acid (ALA), precursor of heme, accumulates in a number of organs, particularly in liver of patients with acute porphyrias or lead intoxication. This study characterizes the involvement of bilirubin as an antioxidant in a chronic intoxication with ALA. Female Wistar rats were injected intraperitoneally a daily dose of 40 mg ALA/body wt., during 10 days. A marked increase in lipid peroxidation and a decrease in GSH content were observed 24 h after the last injection of ALA. The activities of liver antioxidant enzymes, superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT) and glutathione peroxidase were also diminished. ALA synthase (ALA-S) and heme oxygenase-1 were induced. Both ALA dehydratase (ALA-D) and porphobilinogenase (PBG-ase) activities were inhibited. Administration of bilirubin (5 mmol/kg body wt.) 2 h before ALA treatment entirely prevented the effects of ALA. Co-administration of ALA and Sn-protoporphyrin IX (Sn-PPIX; 100 microg/body wt., i.p.), a potent inhibitor of heme oxygenase, completely abolished its induction and provoked a marked decrease in liver GSH levels as well as an increase in lipid peroxidation. These results add further support to the proposal assigning bilirubin a key protective role against oxidative damage here induced by ALA.