Hypoxia causes an increased production of erythropoietin (EPO), but the time course of the EPO response in humans has not been well characterized. This study examines the relationship between the duration of normobaric hypoxic exposure and plasma EPO levels in healthy human subjects. Six volunteers breathed a gas mixture of 10.5% O2-89.5% N2 continuously for 5, 60, and 120 or intermittently for 240 min. O2 saturations were maintained between 75 and 85% during the exposure. Arterial pH was 7.467 +/- 0.019, PO2 37.05 +/- 2.43 Torr, and PCO2 36.69 +/- 2.05 Torr. O2 half-saturation pressures of hemoglobin were normal for all subjects. Plasma EPO was measured every 30 min for 360 min by radioimmunoassay. No increase in EPO was seen after the 5- and 60-min exposures. However, a 50% increase was seen 240 min after the initiation of the 120-min hypoxic exposure (P less than 0.01). Intermittent exposure resulted in an increase of EPO by 52% 360 min after the onset of exposure (P less than 0.05). Therefore, exposing humans continuously to an inspiratory O2 fraction of 0.105 for 120 min or intermittently for 240 min provides a sufficient stimulus to increase production of EPO.