Paraquat, a quaternary ammonium bipyridyl herbicide, produces degenerative lesions in the lung after systemic administration to man and animals. The pulmonary toxicity of paraquat resembles in several ways the toxicity of several other lung toxins, including oxygen, nitrofurantoin and bleomycin. Although a definitive mechanism of toxicity of paraquat has not been delineated, a cyclic single electron reduction/oxidation of the parent molecule is a critical mechanistic event. The redox cycling of paraquat has two potentially important consequences relevant to the development of toxicity: generation of "activated oxygen" (e.g., superoxide anion, hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radical) which is highly reactive to cellular macromolecules; and/or oxidation of reducing equivalents (e.g., NADPH, reduced glutathione) necessary for normal cell function. Paraquat-induced pulmonary toxicity, therefore, is a potentially useful model for evaluation of oxidant mechanisms of toxicity. Furthermore, characterization of the consequences of intracellular redox cycling of xenobiotics will no doubt provide basic information regarding the role of this phenomena in the development of chemical toxicity.