Several isothiocyanates have been proposed as promising chemopreventive agents for human cancers. However, it has been reported that allyl isothiocyanate exhibit carcinogenic potential, and benzyl isothiocyanate and phenethyl isothiocyanate have tumor-promoting activities. We investigated whether these isothiocyanates could cause DNA damage, using (32)P-labeled DNA fragments obtained from the human p53 tumor suppressor gene and the c-Ha-ras-1 protooncogene. Allyl isothiocyanate caused Cu(II)-mediated DNA damage and formation of 8-oxo-7, 8-dihydro-2'-deoxyguanosine (8-oxodG) more strongly than benzyl and phenethyl isothiocyanates. Catalase and bathocuproine, a Cu(I)-specific chelator, inhibited Cu(II)-mediated DNA damage by these isothiocyanates, suggesting involvement of H(2)O(2) and Cu(I). Isothiocyanates induced DNA damage frequently at thymine and cytosine residues in the presence of Cu(II). A UV-visible spectroscopic study revealed an association between the generation of superoxide and the yield of SH group from isothiocyanates. Furthermore, the yield of 8-oxodG formation was correlated with their superoxide-generating ability. Allyl isothiocyanate significantly induced 8-oxodG formation in HL-60 cells, but not in H(2)O(2)-resistant HP100 cells, suggesting the involvement of H(2)O(2) in cellular DNA damage. We conclude that oxidative DNA damage may play important roles in carcinogenic processes induced by allyl isothiocyanate.