Defects in superoxide and hydrogen peroxide production may be implicated in the high incidence of bacterial infections in patients with acute liver failure (ALF). In the present study, oxygen radical production in patients with ALF due to paracetamol overdose was compared with that of healthy volunteers. Neutrophils from 14 ALF patients were stimulated via the complement receptors using zymosan opsonized with ALF or control serum. Superoxide and hydrogen peroxide production by ALF neutrophils stimulated with zymosan opsonized with ALF serum was significantly reduced compared with the control subjects (P < 0.01). This defect persisted when zymosan opsonized by control serum was used (P < 0.05). Superoxide and hydrogen peroxide production in neutrophils stimulated with formyl-methionyl-leucyl-phenylalanine (fMLP) from a further 18 ALF patients was unaffected compared with control neutrophils. Serum C3 complement levels were significantly reduced in ALF patients compared with control subjects (P < 0.0005). These results demonstrate a neutrophil defect in ALF due to paracetamol overdose, that is complement dependent but independent of serum complement, possibly connected to the complement receptor.