It has been proposed that ethane and pentane reflect free oxygen radical-induced lipid peroxidation. However, methodological difficulties limit the use of these gases for assessment of free oxygen radical activity. In the present report we describe an improved method for the accurate analysis of picomole quantities (greater than or equal to 1 pmol) of ethane and pentane. They are first quantitatively trapped into an adsorbent and then heat-desorbed directly into a capillary column for gas chromatographic quantitation. During oxidation of linolenic (n-3) and linoleic (n-6) acid, ethane and pentane were formed, respectively. Nonstimulated granulocytes formed pentane. Upon addition of phorbol 13-myristate 12-acetate, the generation of pentane was increased by 540%. Addition of superoxide dismutase plus catalase inhibited lipid peroxidation in both a cell-free system and in isolated cells. The present method is useful in the evaluation of free oxygen radical induced damage.