The purpose of this study is to determine whether the oxidative injury markers, protein carbonyls and malondialdehyde (MDA), are elevated in tracheal aspirates from very low birth weight (< 1500 g) infants; to determine whether levels correlate with myeloperoxidase as a marker of neutrophil inflammation; and to assess whether high levels are associated with poor respiratory outcome. Tracheal aspirates (144 samples) were collected from 86 infants < 1500 g at times of routine suctioning. Aspirates (82 samples) from 54 infants > or = 1500 g who required intubation for a variety of diagnoses were analyzed for comparison. Analyses were performed for protein carbonyls by ELISA, total malondialdehyde by HPLC, and myeloperoxidase activity. Respiratory outcome was assessed as oxygen requirement at 28-d or 36-wk postmenstrual age, and as the number of days of oxygen requirement. Protein carbonyls were significantly higher in infants < 1500 g than larger infants, and were highest close to birth. MDA concentrations were also higher in the earlier samples. There was a strong positive correlation between protein carbonyls and myeloperoxidase, suggesting a link between protein oxidation and neutrophil activation. A similar but weaker correlation was seen for MDA. Carbonyls in samples taken after steroid administration were less than for controls with a similar age distribution. We did not see significant associations between oxidant marker levels and development of chronic lung disease. Our findings of higher amounts of protein and lipid oxidation products in tracheal aspirates with high myeloperoxidase activity, taken together with other studies showing a link between neutrophil accumulation and chronic lung disease, suggest a possible contribution by neutrophil-derived reactive oxygen species to the injury.