Nitrogen trichloride (NCl(3)) is an irritant gas released in the air of indoor pools sanitized with chlorine-based disinfectants. In the present study we investigated the effects of NCl(3) on the pulmonary epithelium of pool attendees by measuring the leakage into serum of three lung-specific proteins (pneumoproteins): the alveolar surfactant-associated proteins A and B (SP-A and SP-B) and the bronchiolar 16 kDa Clara cell protein (CC16). These pneumoproteins were measured in the serum of 29 recreational swimmers (16 children and 13 adults) before and after attending a chlorinated pool with a mean NCl(3) concentration of 490 microg m(-3). Pneumoprotein changes in serum were also studied in 14 trained swimmers performing an intensive 45 min standardized swimming session in a chlorinated pool (mean NCl(3) concentration of 355 microg m(-3)) and for the purposes of comparison in a non-chlorinated pool sanitized by the copper/silver method. Serum CC16 was not increased in recreational swimmers, but in trained swimmers serum levels of this protein peaked immediately after strenuous exercise, both in the copper/silver pool and in the chlorinated pool. This acute increase in airway permeability is probably the consequence of the mechanical stress on the epithelial barrier caused by overinflation and/or hyperventilation during intense exercise. Serum levels of SP-A and SP-B were unaffected by strenuous exercise in the copper/silver pool. The two proteins were, however, significantly increased in a time-dependent manner in recreational and trained swimmers attending the chlorinated pool. The intravascular leakage of SP-A and SP-B was already statistically significant after only 1 h of exposure to pool air without exercising and remained elevated for 12 h after. These changes were not associated with decrements in lung function. The ability of NCl(3) to acutely disrupt the lung epithelium barrier was confirmed in mice using serum CC16 and plasma proteins in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid as permeability markers. The significance of these permeability changes induced by NCl(3) in the deep lung is presently unknown. In view of the increasing and widespread human exposure to this gas not only in indoor pools but also in a variety of other situations, these findings warrant further study.