Stable nitroxide radicals have been considered as therapeutic antioxidants because they can scavenge more toxic radicals in biologic systems. However, as radicals they also have the potential to increase oxidant stress in cells and tissues. We studied the extent to which this occurs in cultured EA.hy926 endothelial cells exposed to the nitroxide Tempol (4-hydroxy-2,2,6,6-tetramethylpiperidine-N-oxyl). Tempol was rapidly reduced by the cells, as manifest by an increase in the ability of the cells to reduce extracellular ferricyanide and by disappearance of the Tempol EPR signal. Cells loaded with ascorbic acid, which directly reacts with Tempol, showed increased rates of Tempol-dependent ferricyanide reduction, and a more rapid loss of the Tempol EPR signal than cells not containing ascorbate. In this process, intracellular ascorbate was oxidized, and was depleted at lower Tempol concentrations than was GSH, another important intracellular low molecular weight antioxidant. Further evidence that Tempol concentrations of 100-1000 microM induced an oxidant stress was that it caused an increase in the oxidation of dihydrofluorescein in cells and inhibited ascorbate transport at concentrations as low as 50-100 microM. The presence of intracellular ascorbate both prevented dihydrofluorescein oxidation and spared GSH from oxidation by Tempol. Such sparing was not observed when GSH was depleted by other mechanisms, indicating that it was likely due to protection against oxidant stress. These results show that whereas Tempol may scavenge other more toxic radicals, care must be taken to ensure that it does not itself induce an oxidant stress, especially with regard to depletion of ascorbic acid.