Convincing evidence now exists that particulate air pollution exacerbates heart and lung disease, leading to increased morbidity and mortality. The populations particularly susceptible to these exposures are still unclear. Recent work on potential mechanisms of action of particulate air pollution point to pathways also influenced by diabetes. We examined whether diabetes modified the effect of airborne particles by looking at the association of PM(10) with hospital admissions for heart and lung disease in persons with or without diabetes as a comorbidity. In addition we stratified by age within persons with and without diabetes. We used Medicare data for Cook County, Illinois for the years 1988-1994, and found that a 10 microg/m(3) increase in PM(10) was associated with a 2.01% (95% CI 1.40-2.62%) increase in admissions for heart disease with diabetes, but only a 0.94% (95% CI 0.61-1.28%) increase in persons without diabetes. Similar effect modification was not seen for lung diseases. When analyzing by age we found twice the PM(10)-associated risk for heart disease in diabetics than nondiabetics in both age groups. We found for pneumonia admissions that diabetes is an effect modifier in the younger age group, and for COPD in the older age group. We conclude that persons with diabetes are a susceptible population.