Rabbit corneas were isolated, denuded of epithelium, and perfused on the anterior and posterior surfaces with Krebs Ringer-bicarbonate with additions of 50 microM H2O2, 125 microM BCNU, or 100 microM ouabain. The permeability of the corneal endothelium to labelled mannitol and inulin was determined by adding these compounds to the endothelial perfusate and measuring the rate of appearance of radioactivity in the anterior perfusate. Both H2O2 and BCNU increased the flux of mannitol and inulin across the endothelium in a time dependent manner, but ouabain had no effect. Additions of glucose with H2O2 or of GSH with BCNU prevented the observed changes in permeability. ATPase activities in the endothelia of intact, isolated corneas were also determined following incubation in the same media. The only observable effects of H2O2 and BCNU were slight reductions in the activity of Na+ + K+ ATPase. It is concluded that permeability changes, the leak, are more critical than active transport processes, the pump, in determining the rate and extent of swelling that results from exposure of the cornea to these agents.