BACKGROUND: Radiocontrast media (RCM) administration is a common cause of hospital-acquired acute renal failure, especially in high-risk patients, but mechanisms of nephrotoxicity have not been fully elucidated. Reactive oxidant species recently have been shown to play a role in experimental RCM nephropathy, while there is clinical evidence that acetylcysteine, an antioxidant drug, has a protective effect against RCM nephropathy in humans. However, no study has been published showing that RCM administration elicits oxidative stress in humans. METHODS: In an unselected series of patients undergoing elective cardiac catheterization for coronary artery angiography and/or angioplasty, we monitored the time course of plasma and urinary levels of free 3-nitrotyrosine (3-NT), a stable marker of peroxynitrite generation resulting from the in vivo reaction of superoxide and nitric oxide. Urinary 3-NT levels were measured as the ratio of urinary 3-NT to urinary creatinine. Measurements were taken at baseline, immediately after the procedure and at 24, 48 and 72 h. RESULTS: Twenty-six patients were studied (median age 67.5 years, range 42-86; baseline serum creatinine 1.0 mg/dl, 0.6-1.5; RCM dose 215 ml, 100-580). Plasma 3-NT levels slightly increased over the 72 h following the procedure (P<0.001), while urinary 3-NT levels peaked at the end of the procedure (P<0.001). Urinary 3-NT levels reached at the end of the procedure were proportional to the RCM dose administered (P = 0.017). CONCLUSIONS: The present study provides indirect evidence that RCM administration in humans is associated with an increased production of 3-NT. Further studies are needed to ascertain whether oxygen- and nitrogen-derived radical species play a major role in the pathogenesis of RCM-associated nephrotoxicity in the clinical setting.