Growing evidence supports the concept that oxygen free radicals are an important cause of myocardial ischemic and reperfusion injury. This study was designed to determine if toxic oxygen metabolites may exacerbate ischemic injury upon reoxygenation. Left ventricular function was studied in a group of seven dogs receiving intermittent, 4 degrees C, hyperosmolar, hyperkalemic (KCI 25 mEq/L) saline cardioplegic solution. This group was compared to a group (n = 7) receiving a hyperkalemic (KCI 25 mEq/L) cardioplegic solution designed to scavenge superoxide anion and hydroxyl radical: superoxide dismutase (3,000 U/ml) and mannitol (325 mOsm/L). A third group of five animals received allopurinol pretreatment (50 mg/kg/day) for 72 hours and hyperkalemic saline cardioplegic solution. After 60 minutes of ischemia (10 degrees to 15 degrees C) and 45 minutes of reperfusion, left ventricular mechanical function was better in the groups receiving free radical scavengers and allopurinol pretreatment than in the group receiving only hyperkalemic saline cardioplegic solution. Free radical scavengers preserved myocardial function in this model of hypothermic global ischemia and reperfusion. Our data support the concept that injury occurs primarily during reperfusion with the generation of oxygen free radicals via the hypoxanthine-xanthine oxidase reaction. Allopurinol has potential clinical application in the prevention of reperfusion injury.