Sixteen plant-derived or synthetic coumarins with various hydroxyl and other substitutions were tested for their ability to inhibit lipid peroxidation and to scavenge hydroxyl radicals, superoxide radicals and hypochlorous acid. Seven unsubstituted or monosubstituted coumarins were essentially inactive in all tests except for ability to scavenge OH with rate constants approximately greater than 1 x 10(9) M-1. sec-1. Of the remaining nine, six containing dihydroxy substitutions were effective inhibitors of Fe3+-ascorbate-dependent microsomal lipid peroxidation (IC50 less than 20 microM), with ortho-dihydroxy + one additional substitution optimal (IC50 less than 10 microM). ortho-Dihydroxylated coumarins were pro-oxidant (enhanced OH generation) in the Fe3+-EDTA-H2O2 deoxyribose system but decreased OH' generation in the Fe3+-ascorbate-H2O2 deoxyribose system, indicating that these compounds can both chelate iron ions and also readily donate electrons for redox cycling of Fe3+. The meta-dihydroxycoumarin did not show this behaviour, but was an effective scavenger of hypochlorous acid, a property shared by only one other compound. Several other coumarins with one or more hydroxyl substituents were also capable of effectively removing superoxide anions (IC50 3.7-72 microM), although some could not be quantified due to direct rapid reduction of cytochrome c. We conclude that several compounds, notably 5,7-dihydroxy-4-methylcoumarin, possess beneficial biochemical profiles of interest in relation to pathophysiological processes dependent upon reactive oxygen species.