Rat liver microsomes and, to a lesser extent, nuclei were previously shown to produce reactive oxygen species at elevated rates after chronic ethanol treatment. The ability of intact rat liver mitochondria to interact with iron and either NADH or NADPH, and the effects of ethanol treatment, on production of reactive oxygen intermediates was determined. In the presence of ferric ATP, NADH or NADPH catalyzed mitochondrial lipid peroxidation. Rates were elevated two- to threefold with mitochondria from ethanol-fed rats with both reductants. Mitochondrial lipid peroxidation was insensitive to superoxide dismutase, catalase, or hydroxyl radical scavengers but was sensitive to GSH and anti-oxidants such as trolox. Mitochondrial generation of hydroxyl radical-like species (assayed by oxidation of chemical scavengers) was increased after chronic ethanol treatment, as was H2O2 production. Modifiers of mitochondrial metabolism such as rotenone, cyanide, or an uncoupling agent, had no effect on mitochondrial production of reactive oxygen intermediates. The membrane-impermeable thiol reagent, p-chloromercuribenzoate, was completely inhibitory with both mitochondrial preparations. The activity of the rotenone-insensitive NADH-cytochrome c reductase, an enzyme of the outer mitochondrial membrane, was increased 40 to 60% by the ethanol treatment. These results suggest that NADH acting via the outer membrane NADH reductase can catalyze an iron-dependent production of oxygen radicals by rat liver mitochondria. The outer mitochondrial membrane fraction, prepared by digitonin fractionation, displayed increased rotenone-insensitive NADH-cytochrome c reductase activity after ethanol treatment and was more reactive in catalyzing scission of pBR322 DNA from the supercoiled form to the open circular forms. Rates of oxygen radical production by mitochondria and the extent of increase produced by chronic ethanol treatment are similar to those previously found with microsomes when NADH is the cofactor. Oxidation of ethanol by alcohol dehydrogenase generates NADH, and NADH-dependent production of reactive oxygen species by various organelles is increased after chronic ethanol treatment. These acute metabolic interactions coupled to induction by chronic ethanol treatment may play an important role in the development of a state of oxidative stress in the liver by ethanol.