Malathion is an organophosphate (OP) pesticide that has been shown to induce oxidative stress in erythrocytes through the generation of free radicals and alteration of the cellular antioxidant defense system. We examined the effect of several different doses of malathion (25, 75, 200 microM), or malathion in combination with vitamin C (VC; 10 microM) or vitamin E (VE; 30 microM), on the levels of malondialdehyde (MDA), and superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), and glutathione peroxidase (GPx) activities in human erythrocytes in vitro. Erythrocytes were incubated under various treatment conditions (malathion alone, vitamins alone, or malathion plus vitamin) at 37 degrees C for 60 min, and the levels of MDA, and SOD, CAT and GPx activities, were determined. Treatment with malathion alone increased the levels of MDA and decreased SOD, CAT, and GPx activities in erythrocytes (P < 0.05). There were no statistical differences among VC-treated, VE-treated, or VC + VE-treated erythrocyes, as compared with nontreated control cells. Treatment of cells with malathion + VC, malathion + VE, or a combination of all three agents prevented malathion-induced changes in antioxidant enzyme activity and lipid peroxidation. However, this effect was seen only at low concentrations of malathion (25 and 75 microM), and the combination of VC + VE had a more protective effect than VC or VE alone. These results indicated that the presence of vitamins at concentrations that are similar to the levels found in plasma have no effect on malathion-induced toxicity in erythrocytes at a concentration of malathion (200 microM) that is typically used in pesticides.