This study investigated the effect of prolonged rupture of the amniotic membranes (PROM) and probable maternal or fetal sepsis without PROM on the newborn preterm airway. Bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) was obtained from 38 infants in the first day of life and analyzed for number of white cells and concentration of interleukin-6 (IL-6). The volume of lung epithelial lining fluid (ELF) was estimated using the urea dilution technique. Infants with PROM (n = 13) and those with sepsis (n = 8) had higher total numbers of white cells in BALF compared with infants without PROM or sepsis (n = 17) (55 and 44 versus 7 x 10(4) white cells, p less than 0.01). Uncorrected and urea-corrected IL-6 concentrations were also higher in the two groups (18.5 and 30.8 versus 5.0 fmol/ml BALF, p less than 0.01; 157.7 and 444 versus 88.5 fmol/ml ELF, p less than 0.05). There was a significant correlation between BALF white cells and uncorrected IL-6 concentrations (rs = 0.78, p less than 0.0001). Detectable serum C-reactive protein in newborn infants was associated with increased levels of IL-6 in BALF (42.2 versus 11.8 fmol/ml BALF, p less than 0.05). We conclude that PROM is associated with airway inflammation and raised levels of IL-6 in neonatal lung fluid within the first 24 h of life and that this may initiate a systemic stress response.