Recent studies have shown that particulate air pollution is a risk factor for hospitalization for heart and lung disease; however, little is known about what subpopulations are most sensitive to this pollutant. We analyzed Medicare hospital admissions for heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders (COPD) and pneumonia in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, between 1985 and 1994. We examined whether previous admissions or secondary diagnoses for selected conditions predisposed persons to having a greater risk from air pollution. We also considered effect modification by age, sex, and race. We found that the air-pollution-associated increase in hospital admissions for cardiovascular diseases was almost doubled in subjects with concurrent respiratory infections. The risk was also increased by a previous admission for conduction disorders. For COPD and pneumonia admissions, diagnosis of conduction disorders or dysrhythmias increased the risk of particulate matter < 10 microm in aerodynamic diameter (PM(10))-associated admissions. Persons with asthma had twice the risk of a PM(10)-associated pneumonia admission and persons with heart failure had twice the risk of PM(10)-induced COPD admissions. The PM(10) effect did not vary by sex, age, and race. These results suggest that patients with acute respiratory infections or defects in the electrical control of the heart are a risk group for particulate matter effects.