The mechanisms by which ferrous ion promoters induce malondialdehyde generation by human spermatozoa have been investigated in order to provide a rational basis for the quantification and interpretation of lipid peroxidation assays. Incubation of human spermatozoa with a ferrous ion promoter in the presence of thiobarbituric acid (TBA) led to the generation of the bone fide malondialdehyde-TBA adduct. The importance of iron in the stimulation of lipid peroxidation was emphasized by the ability of Desferal* and EDTA to suppress malondialdehyde generation. Paradoxically, when the concentration of EDTA relative to iron was equimolar or greater, the suppression of malondialdehyde formation was accompanied by the generation of hydroxyl radicals. These results suggested that the addition of promoter did not effect the first-chain initiation of lipid peroxidation but favored an alternative mechanism involving the catalytic decomposition of pre-existing lipid peroxides. This conclusion was reinforced by the inability of reagents that would limit the formation (superoxide dismutase and/or catalase) or availability (mannitol, formate) of hydroxyl radicals, to influence malondialdehyde generation. While hydroxyl radicals were not directly involved in Fe2+-promoted malondialdehyde generation, the existence of significant correlations between reactive oxygen species production and the outcome of the TBA assay, suggested that Fenton chemistry might be important in the initiation of peroxidative damage. It is proposed that the impeded propagation of peroxidation initiated by Fenton or Haber Weiss reactions would lead to the accumulation of lipid peroxides in the spermatozoa and it is these peroxides that are induced to decompose during the Fe2+-promoted TBA assay, stimulating a lipoperoxidative chain reaction and malondialdehyde formation. © 1993 Wiley-Liss, Inc.