Electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy is used to observe hydroxyl radicals produced by an atmospheric pressure nonthermal plasma device at distances greater than 1 m from the discharge. The plasma device is an indirect treatment setup with closed loop airflow and hydrogen peroxide additives that is effective in deactivating bacteria on time scales of seconds. The generation of the detected hydroxyl radicals is shown to occur in secondary chemical processes near the point of delivery of the plasma treated air stream. The production of hydroxyl radicals is correlated with humidity of the air stream and ability to lyse bacterial membranes. The overall mechanisms of bacteria inactivation are found to be a combinatorial effect of effluent species. The results indicate the feasibility of selective plasma induced free radical delivery for biomedical applications even in the case of short-lived species like the hydroxyl radical. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2013; 110: 1936–1944. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.