Proteolysis of elastic fibers is central to the development of emphysema, and a simple, noninvasive assay of elastin degradation would be useful in diagnosis and in therapeutic monitoring. We have adapted an indirect enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to determine plasma, urine, and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) elastin peptide concentrations in nonsmokers, healthy smokers, and patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Plasma elastin peptide concentrations were significantly higher in subjects with COPD (66.8 +/- 5.8 ng/ml, n = 10) compared with nonsmokers (23.4 +/- 4.6 ng/ml, n = 12), and healthy smokers had intermediate values (36.0 +/- 6.8, n = 6), p less than 0.05. Urine values (both unadjusted and normalized to urine creatinine concentration) were approximately 10-fold higher than plasma in all subject groups, and the relative differences among groups were the same as for plasma with values of 910.8 +/- 105.6, 358.1 +/- 101.2, and 281.0 +/- 67.8 ng/ml for subjects with COPD (n = 10), healthy smokers (n = 6), and healthy nonsmokers (n = 12), respectively. Poor recovery of BALF in COPD subjects reduced differences in the BALF elastin peptide concentrations among subjects groups, although the healthy smokers and COPD subjects tended to have higher amounts. Assuming some dilution due to lavage technique, elastin peptide concentrations were estimated to be substantially higher in epithelial lining fluid than in plasma, suggesting lung as a significant source of elastin peptides in COPD. This is the first application of elastin peptide measurement to human urine or BALF, and we conclude that this assay in urine is useful in characterizing elastin turnover in patients with or at risk for emphysema.