We evaluated whether supplemental pharmacologic interventions that altered formation or degradation of reactive oxygen metabolites, when added to hypothermic crystalloid cardioplegic solution (procaine-free St. Thomas' Hospital solution), alter postischemic function of isolated rabbit hearts. Hypoxic, substrate-free cardioplegic solutions cooled to 27 degrees C were perfused through isolated rabbit hearts for 5 minutes before and after an uninterrupted 2 hour period of global ischemia at 27 degrees C. Hearts were then reperfused with standard buffer for 1 hour at 37 degrees C. In some experiments, the cardioplegic solution was supplemented with the following: superoxide dismutase (30 micrograms/ml; degrades superoxide anion); catalase (1.7 micrograms/ml; degrades hydrogen peroxide); allopurinol (1 mmol/L; inhibits xanthine oxidase); or deferoxamine (Desferal, 0.5 mmol/L; selectively chelates ferric iron). Postreperfusion contractile parameters of supplemented hearts, including left ventricular pressure development and its first derivative, left ventricular compliance, spontaneous heart rate, and coronary vascular resistance, were statistically compared to data obtained from hearts arrested with unsupplemented cardioplegic solution. Catalase supplementation provided statistically significant improvement of most functional parameters; somewhat less protection was obtained with allopurinol. Deferoxamine provided little added protection except for the ability to prevent ischemia-induced increases of coronary vascular resistance. There was no evidence of added protection by superoxide dismutase. The data suggest that an important component of ischemia-induced cardiac cell damage in an asanguineous setting is hydrogen peroxide-dependent, and interventions that either inhibit production of superoxide anion or degrade hydrogen peroxide offer best protection. They may be clinically efficacious additives to crystalloid cardioplegic solutions.