Rats were treated for 5 to 14 days with perfluoroacetate, perfluorobutyrate and perfluorooctanoate. Alterations in hepatic morphology with special reference to the peroxisomal compartment were investigated by light and electron microscopy following cytochemical staining of catalase activity with the alkaline 3,3'-diaminobenzidine medium. All three compounds induced hepatomegaly and peroxisome proliferation. Perfluorobutyrate and perfluorooctanoate were found to be more active than perfluoroacetate. Perfluorooctanoate-induced peroxisome proliferation was more prevalent in centrilobular than in periportal hepatocytes. Peroxisomes in centrilobular liver cells frequently were of round shape, exhibited diameters of up to 1.5 microns and were predominantly located within smooth endoplasmic reticulum-glycogen areas. In periportal cells, however, clusters of polymorphous peroxisomes ranging from 250 to 1,100 nm in diameter were observed at the periphery of smooth endoplasmic reticulum-glycogen regions. Peroxisome proliferation was accompanied by a change of peroxisomal and mitochondrial enzyme activities, in particular an increase in peroxisomal palmitoyl-CoA oxidation. Significant alterations in the concentration of peroxisomal matrix and membrane polypeptides were also noted. Within the first 2 days, perfluorooctanoate treatment exerted a strong hypolipidemic activity and both compounds perfluorooctanoate and perfluorobutyrate raised the level of hepatic free acid-soluble CoA nearly 10-fold as compared with control livers. The results suggest perfluorinated carboxylic acids to be model substances suitable to correlate biochemical and morphological parameters with the zonal heterogeneity of the peroxisomal compartment in rat liver. Due to the manifold hepatic effects, contact of humans with perfluorinated carboxylic acids or their metabolic precursors may represent a severe health risk.