In the course of establishing an assay for estrogen-2-hydroxylase activity, a detailed comparison was made between the formation of tritiated water (3H2O) and [6,7-3H]2-hydroxyestradiol (2-OHE2) by rabbit hypothalami in vitro from 2-3H- and 6,7-3H-labeled estradiol, respectively. The amounts of both 3H2O and [6,7-3H]2-OHE2 formed were stimulated several-fold by the nonionic detergent Tween-80. Maximum activity for both functions was associated with the soluble fractions (S2, 17,500 X g supernatant, for tritium release; S3, 100,000 X g supernatant, for 2-OHE2 formation). In contrast, maximal 3H2O formation by rat liver was associated with the microsomal (P3, 100,000 X g pellet) fraction and was virtually abolished by Tween-80. The amount of 3H2O formed exceeded, up to severalfold, the amount of 2-OHE2 produced under all conditions examined and in all subcellular fractions. The bulk of the excess 3H2O formation, unrelated to the production of 2-OHE2, could be eliminated by adding ascorbic acid (10 mM) to the incubation medium. However, a second, smaller component of spurious 3H2O release could not be suppressed. This component was responsible for a persistent lack of stoichiometry between the formation of 3H2O and 2-OHE2, with the former exceeding the latter by up to 2-fold. This discrepancy was unaffected by ascorbic acid (up to 20 mM), unlabeled 2-OHE2 (up to 10 microM), and reducing the temperature of incubation from 37 to 30 C, measures that prolonged the t1/2 of 2-OHE2 during incubation with hypothalamic tissue from under 3 min to over 100 min. These findings 1) raise doubts about the validity of using 3H2O formation from [2-3H]estradiol as a quantitative index of estrogen-2-hydroxylase activity, and 2) establish conditions under which further metabolism of 2-OHE2 is inhibited, thereby making it practical to quantify enzyme activity on the basis of the amount of catechol estrogen formed. Evidence is also presented that the release of 3H2O from [2-3H]estradiol by hypothalamic tissue, unrelated to 2-OHE2 formation, may be enzymatically mediated.