Mercury can exist in the environment as metal, as monovalent and divalent salts and as organomercurials, one of the most important of which is mercuric chloride (HgCl2). It has been shown to induce oxidative stress in erythrocytes through the generation of free radicals and alteration of the cellular antioxidant defense system. The effect of simultaneous pretreatment with vitamins C and E on the toxicity of HgCl2 in human erythrocytes was evaluated. We examined the effect of several different doses of HgCl2 (1.052, 5.262, 10.524 mu M), or HgCl2 in combination with vitamin C (VC; 10 mu M) and vitamin E (VE; 30 mu M), on the levels of malondialdehyde (MDA) and superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT) and glutathione peroxidase (GPx) activities in human erythrocytes in vitro. Erythrocytes were incubated under various treatment conditions (HgCl2 alone, vitamins alone, or HgCl2 plus vitamin) at 37 degrees C for 60 min and the levels of MDA and SOD, CAT and GPx activities, were determined. Treatment with HgCl2 alone increased the levels of MDA and decreased SOD, CAT and GPx activities in erythrocytes (P < 0.05). VC and VE-pretreated erythrocytes showed a significant protection aganist the cytotoxic effects induced by HgCl2 on the studied parameters. There were no statistical differences among VC+VE-treated erythrocytes, as compared to non-treated control cells. These results indicated that the presence of vitamins at concentrations that are similar to the levels found in plasma could be able to ameliorate HgCl2-induced oxidative stress by decreasing lipid peroxidation and altering antioxidant defense system in erythrocytes.