We have demonstrated recently that chronic hyperoxic treatment accelerates the rate of aging of fibroblasts and the rate of telomere shortening in parallel. It was hypothesized that accelerated telomere shortening is due to preferential accumulation of oxidative damage in telomeres. To test this hypothesis, we measured the accumulation of sites sensitive to S1 nuclease treatment in telomeres, in minisatellites, and in the bulk of the genome of fibroblasts under different models of oxidative stress as well as after treatment with the alkylating agent, N-methyl-N'-nitro-N-nitrosoguanidine. A comparison with qualitative data obtained by alkaline electrophoresis reveals that the sites transferred to double-strand breaks by treatment with low concentrations of S1 nuclease are, in fact, single-stranded regions in the DNA. These regions may resemble single-stranded overhangs, gaps, or conventional single-strand breaks. The frequency of single-stranded regions is significantly higher in telomeres than in minisatellites or in the bulk of the genome under all conditions tested. Those regions induced in minisatellites or in the overall genome by a bolus dose of hydrogen peroxide are completely repaired within 24 h. On the other hand, 50 +/- 12% of H2O2-induced single-stranded regions remain unrepaired for at least 19 days in telomeres of human fibroblasts, leading to a significant increase of the telomeric steady-state level of these lesions. This preferential accumulation might significantly contribute to telomere shortening.