Many of the features of bronchial disease are believed to be caused by damage to the airways by elastase released by recruited neutrophils. There have been few studies of the mechanisms involved and the interrelationships between components of the inflammatory process. We studied secretions from patients with chronic bronchitis in the stable state. We assessed the presence of neutrophils by measuring myeloperoxidase (MPO) activity and active neutrophil elastase (NE). These results were compared with the chemoattractants interleukin-8 (IL-8) and leukotriene B(4) (LTB(4)), the bronchial inhibitor secretory leukoprotease inhibitor (SLPI), and protein leak (sputum/serum albumin ratio). MPO correlated with NE activity (r = 0.68, p < 0.001) and both IL-8 (r = 0.52, p < 0.001) and LTB(4) (r = 0.41, p < 0.001) indicating an association with the chemoattractants. Elastase activity correlated with IL-8 (r = 0.55, p < 0.001) and LTB(4) (r = 0.41, p < 0.001) but negatively with SLPI (r = -0.49, p < 0.001). NE also correlated positively with protein leak (r = 0.36, p < 0.001), suggesting a cause and effect. MPO and protein leak correlated negatively with FEV(1) (percentage of predicted) only in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) without alpha(1)-antitrypsin deficiency (r = -0.37, p < 0.001; r = -0.42, p < 0.01, respectively). These complex interactions provide a template for future studies with specific inhibitors or agonists which will clarify the role of individual factors.