Protection by the flavonoids, quercetin and rutin, against tert-butylhydroperoxide (tert-BOOH)- and menadione-induced DNA single strand breaks was investigated in Caco-2 cells. Both tert-BOOH and menadione induced DNA single strand breaks in a concentration-dependent manner. Pre-incubation of Caco-2 cells with either quercetin or rutin for 24 h significantly decreased the formation of DNA single strand breaks evoked by tert-BOOH (P < .05). Iron chelators, 1,10-phenanthroline (o-Phen) and deferoxamine mesylate (DFO), also protected against tert-BOOH-induced DNA damage, whereas butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) had no effect. Quercetin, and not rutin, decreased the extent of menadione-induced DNA single strand breaks. DFO and BHT, and not o-Phen, protected against menadione-induced DNA strand break formation (P < .05). From the results of this study, iron ions were involved in tert-BOOH-induced DNA single strand break formation in Caco-2 cells, whereas DNA damage evoked by menadione was far more complex. We demonstrated that the flavonoids, quercetin and rutin, protected against tert-BOOH-induced DNA strand breaks by way of their metal ion chelating mechanism. However, quercetin, and not rutin, protected against menadione-induced DNA single strand breaks by acting as both a metal chelator and radical scavenger. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Inc.