The effects of the antioxidants butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) on isolated rat hepatocytes were investigated. Both antioxidants were observed to be cytotoxic in a concentration-dependent manner at concentrations ranging from 100 to 750 microM. At equimolar concentrations BHT was more cytotoxic than BHA. Their toxicity appeared to be independent of their metabolism to reactive intermediates since inhibitors of cytochrome P-450 (metyrapone, SKF 525-A and piperonyl butoxide) had no effect on the cytotoxicity and N-acetylcysteine was also without protective effect. In addition, deuterated BHT was equitoxic with BHT. Only low temperature incubation (4 degrees), which has previously been shown to inhibit the insertion of these compounds into biomembranes, was effective in inhibiting the cytotoxic effects. Using isolated rat liver mitochondria we observed that both BHA and BHT inhibited respiratory control primarily by stimulating state 4 respiration and thus acting as membrane uncouplers. BHA and BHT also effectively dissipated membrane potential across the mitochondrial membrane and caused the release of calcium and mitochondrial swelling. These mitochondrial effects were reflected by a rapid decrease in ATP levels in intact hepatocytes which preceded cell death. These results suggest that the observed cytotoxicity of BHA and BHT to hepatocytes is related to their effects on biomembranes and mitochondrial bioenergetics.