Ionic, high-osmolality contrast medium causes nephrotoxicity associated with increased intrarenal adenosine production. To test the hypothesis that oxygen free radicals (produced during intrarenal adenosine catabolism to xanthine) should be implicated in the pathogenesis of ionic, high-osmolality contrast medium nephrotoxicity in humans and to determine whether magnesium protects the kidney from oxygen free radical injury following contrast, 39 patients with mild renal dysfunction were divided into low (LoMg++) and normal (NlMg++) magnesium states and randomized to precoronary angiography oral allopurinol (a xanthine oxidase inhibitor) or placebo. Creatinine clearance and urinary xanthine excretion were measured before and after angiography. Forty-eight hours after contrast medium exposure, placebo-treated LoMg++ and NlMg++ patients had 61%+/-5% and 67%+/-6% increases in urinary xanthine excretion, respectively; however, placebo-treated LoMg++ patients had a greater (79%+/-9% v 35%+/-6%; P < 0.01) decrease in creatinine clearance than placebo-treated NlMg++ patients. Allopurinol-treated LoMg++ and NlMg++ patients had no significant change in urinary xanthine excretion, but did have 40%+/-7% and 33%+/-5% decreases, respectively, in creatinine clearance 48 hours after contrast medium exposure. There was no difference in renal dysfunctional response among placebo-treated NlMg++ patients or allopurinol-treated LoMg++ or NlMg++ patients. These data suggest (1) that oxygen free radicals contribute to ionic, high-osmolality contrast medium nephrotoxicity in hypomagnesemic patients with mild renal disease and (2) that magnesium attenuates the nephrotoxicity mediated by oxygen free radicals.