Ozone in ambient air may cause various effects on human health, including decreased lung function, asthma exacerbation, and even premature mortality. These effects have been evidenced using various clinical indicators that, although sensitive, do not specifically evaluate the O(3)-increased lung epithelium permeability. In the present study, we assessed the acute effects of ambient O(3) on the pulmonary epithelium by a new approach relying on the assay in serum of the lung-specific Clara cell protein (CC16 or CC10). We applied this test to cyclists who exercised for 2 hr during episodes of photochemical smog and found that O(3) induces an early leakage of lung Clara cell protein. The protein levels increased significantly into the serum from exposure levels as low as 0.060-0.084 ppm. Our findings, confirmed in mice exposed to the current U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standards for O(3) (0.08 ppm for 8 hr) indicate that above the present natural background levels, there is almost no safety margin for the effects of ambient O(3) on airway permeability. The assay of CC16 in the serum represents a new sensitive noninvasive test allowing the detection of early effects of ambient O(3) on the lung epithelial barrier.