The difficulties associated with the growth of Legionella species in common laboratory media may be due to the sensitivity of these organisms to low levels of hydrogen peroxide and superoxide radicals. Exposure of yeast extract (YE) broth to fluorescent light generated superoxide radicals (3 microM/h) and hydrogen peroxide (16 microM/h). Autoclaved YE medium was more prone to photochemical oxidation than YE medium sterilized by filtration. Activated charcoals and, to a lesser extent, graphite, but not starch, prevented photochemical oxidation of YE medium, decomposed hydrogen peroxide and superoxide radicals, and prevented light-accelerated autooxidation of cysteine. Also, suspensions of charcoal in phosphate buffer and in charcoal yeast extract medium readily decomposed exogenous peroxide (17 and 23 nmol/ml per min, respectively). Combinations of bovine superoxide dismutase and catalase also decreased the rate of photooxidation of YE medium. Medium protected from light did not accumulate appreciable levels of hydrogen peroxide, and autoclaved YE medium protected from light supported good growth of Legionella micdadei. Various species of Legionella (10(4) cells per ml) exhibited sensitivity to relatively low levels of hydrogen peroxide (26.5 microM) in challenge experiments. The level of hydrogen peroxide that accumulated in YE medium over a period of several hours (greater than 50 microM) was in excess of the level tolerated by Legionella pneumophila, which contained no measurable catalase activity. Strains of L. micdadei, Legionella dumoffi, and Legionella bozmanii contained this enzyme, but the presence of catalase did not appear to confer appreciable tolerance to exogenously generated hydrogen peroxide.