The reactivity of iron on crocidolite asbestos with dioxygen was determined and compared with iron mobilized from crocidolite. Ferrozine, a strong Fe(II) chelator, was used to demonstrate that iron on crocidolite was redox active. More Fe(II) was mobilized from crocidolite (1 mg/ml) by ferrozine anaerobically (11.2 nmol/mg crocidolite/h) than aerobically (6.6 nmol/mg/h) in 50 mM NaCl, pH 7.5, suggesting that Fe(II) on crocidolite reacts with O2 upon aqueous suspension. However, suspension of crocidolite in 50 mM NaCl, pH 7.5, did not result in a measurable amount of O2 consumption. The addition of reducing agents (1 mM) increased the amount of Fe(II) on crocidolite, and addition of ascorbate resulted in 0.4 nmol O2 consumed/mg crocidolite/min. Therefore, iron on crocidolite had limited redox activity in the presence of ascorbate. However, mobilization of iron from crocidolite increased its redox activity. Citrate, nitrilotriacetate (NTA), or EDTA (1 mM) mobilized 79, 32, or 58 microM iron, respectively, in preincubations up to 76 h, and increased O2 consumption upon addition of ascorbate to 2.8, 7.6, or 22.0 nmol O2 consumed/mg/min, respectively. This activity depended only upon the presence of a component(s) mobilized from crocidolite by the chelators. Pretreatment of crocidolite with the iron chelator desferrioxamine B (10 mM) inhibited O2 consumption. The results of the present study suggest that iron on or in crocidolite is responsible for the redox activity of crocidolite, but that mobilization of iron by chelators such as citrate, NTA, or EDTA greatly enhances its redox activity. Thus, iron mobilization from crocidolite in vivo by low-molecular-weight chelators may lead to the increased production of reactive oxygen species which may damage biomolecules, such as DNA.