The carcinogenicity of estrogens in rodents and man has been attributed to either alkylation of cellular macromolecules and/or redox-cycling, generation of active radicals, and DNA damage. Metabolic activation of estradiol leading to the formation of catechol estrogens is believed to be a prerequisite for its genotoxic effects. 4-Hydroxyestradiol, although not 2-hydroxyestradiol, is a potent inducer of tumors in hamsters. Previous studies have shown that 3,4-estrone quinone can redox-cycle and is capable of inducing exclusively single strand DNA breaks in MCF-7 breast cancer cells, as well as react with various nucleophiles (thiol, imidazole, amino, phenolate, and acetoxy) to give Michael addition products. These results support the possible involvement of 3,4-catechol/quinone estrogens in estrogen's carcinogenicity. To explain the decreased carcinogenicity of 2-hydroxyestrogens, the reactions of 2,3-estrone quinone (2,3-EQ) with nucleophiles were investigated. Reactions of 4-methylimidazole with 2,3-EQ gave a complex mixture of products leadng to the formation of the catechol, C-O dimerization product, and a 1,6-Michael addition product identified as the 1-(4-methylimidazolo)-2-hydroxyestrone. Reactions of 2,3-EQ under mildly basic conditions with either ethyl phenolate or acetate gave several products which were characterized as the C-O and C-C dimers, catechol, and 3,5-dihydroxy-1(10),3-estradiene-2,17-dione. No Michael addition products were detected under these experimental conditions. The same products were also observed during the synthesis of 2,3-EQ, which led us to postulate that the lack of carcinogenicity of 2-hydroxyestrogens may be related to the increased reactivity and decreased stability of the quinone under physiological conditions. These results are contrasted with those obtained with 3,4-EQ which is much more stable and therefore could diffuse from the site of formation to the target tissue. These results along with rapid methylation and clearance may be very likely explanations for the decreased carcinogenicity of 2-hydroxyestrogens.