Recent studies have suggested that free radicals contribute to the diaphragmatic dysfunction observed in sepsis. However, previous work has not determined which species of free radicals are responsible for producing these effects or whether the intercostal muscles are affected similarly during sepsis. The purpose of this study was to examine these issues using a hamster model of endotoxin-mediated sepsis in which diaphragm and intercostal muscle function was assessed on muscle strips excised from these animals after killing. Several groups of animals were studied, including animals injected with (1) saline, (2) endotoxin, (3) endotoxin plus active PEG-SOD, a Superoxide scavenger, (4) endotoxin plus active PEG-catalase, a hydrogen peroxide scavenger, (5) endotoxin plus DMSO, a hydroxyl scavenger, and (6) endotoxin plus denatured PEG-SOD. We found that endotoxin administration elicited significant reductions in diaphragm and intercostal muscle contractility. In each of the three groups of animals to which active free radical scavengers were administered, the effects of endotoxin were attenuated. Denatured PEG-SOD did not protect the respiratory muscles from endotoxin-mediated dysfunction, however. These data indicate that both the diaphragm and intercostal muscles are affected similarly by sepsis; moreover, several free radical species (Superoxide ions, hydrogen peroxide, and hydroxyl ions) play a role in mediating this type of injury.