Free radicals can initiate the oxidative decomposition of cellular membranes by lipid peroxidation. In this process a great variety of reactive aldehydes are produced intracellularly. Some of them, such as 4-hydroxynonenal or malonaldehyde, are biologically very active and might be involved in free radical-mediated DNA damage. A short review of the effects of aldehydic lipid peroxidation products on isolated DNA, their genotoxic effect in prokaryotes and eukaryotes and their in vivo carcinogenicity is given. Additionally own experiments on cytotoxic and genotoxic effects of 4-hydroxynonenal, 2-nonenal and nonanal in primary cultures of rat hepatocytes are reported. 4-Hydroxynonenal was highly cytotoxic at 100 microM, at subcytotoxic concentrations of 0.1-10 microM 4-hydroxynonenal increased the frequency of micronuclei, chromosomal aberrations and sister-chromatid exchange. 2-Nonenal and nonanal were not cytotoxic at 100 microM, the maximum dose tested. At 100 microM 2-nonenal led to a slight increase in micronuclei; chromosomal aberrations were not significantly altered. Nonanal had no detectable genotoxic effects. The level of endogenous 4-hydroxynonenal in tissues is in the range of 0.1-3.0 microM and can increase to 10 microM in conditions of oxidative stress; such levels appear to be sufficiently high to produce DNA damages, whether such damages are transient or irreversible is not known.