We used a gamma camera to monitor the retention and clearance of radiolabeled human serum albumin (HSA), a water-soluble material with molecular weight of 66,000 Daltons, and radiolabeled sulfur colloid (SC), an insoluble submicron (0.22 microm) particle, following localized deposition in a 4-5-mm bronchus in each of five dogs. The average retention time of HSA was significantly greater than that of SC both in the deposition site (23.3 +/- 2.3 vs. 18.2 +/- 2.9 min respectively, p < 0.05) and in the clearance pathway (26.5 +/- 2.0 vs. 22.0 +/- 1.4 min, respectively, p < 0.05). The mean percent retention at the deposition site at 60 minutes post-deposition also was significantly greater for HSA than for SC (33.5 +/- 10.1 vs. 11.6 +/- 4.7%, respectively, p < 0.05). The percentage of HSA which had cleared to the level of the cuffed endotracheal tube was significantly less than that of SC (18.0 +/- 6.7 vs. 35.8 +/- 3.5%, respectively, p < 0.05) at 60 min post-deposition. These findings indicate that a low-permeating water-soluble material such as HSA deposited on the surface of an airway remains in contact with the sensitive airway epithelium to a greater extent than does a solid insoluble particle. Based on our results, we speculate that the slower clearance of HSA compared to SC was likely due to diffusion of a greater portion of the HSA into the periciliary sol layer which may be transported less efficiently than the mucus layer during mucociliary clearance. Additionally, some degree of uptake of HSA by bronchial epithelium may have contributed to its increased retention.