Possible health hazards of fumes and aerosols of bitumen are in discussion, and data on their adverse effects on human airways under current exposure conditions are limited. To assess the irritative effects of exposure to fumes and aerosols of bitumen on the airways, a cross-sectional cross-shift study was conducted including external and internal exposure measurements, spirometry and especially non-invasive methods like nasal lavage collection and induction of sputum in order to identify and evaluate more precisely inflammatory process in the upper and lower airways. The cross-shift study comprised 74 mastic asphalt workers who were exposed to fumes and aerosols of bitumen and 49 construction workers without this exposure as reference group. Questionnaire, spirometry, ambient monitoring and urinary analysis were performed. Humoral and cellular parameters were measured in nasal lavage fluid (NALF) and induced sputum. For data analysis, a mixed linear model was performed on the different outcomes with exposure group, time of measurement (pre-, post-shift), current smoking, German nationality and age as fixed factors and subjects as random factor. Based on personal exposure measurements during shift, mastic asphalt workers were classified into a low (< or =10 mg/m(3); n = 46) and a high (>10 mg/m(3); n = 28) exposure group. High exposure was accompanied by significant higher urinary post-shift concentrations of 1-hydroxypyrene and the sum of hydroxyphenanthrenes. Acute respiratory symptoms were reported more frequently in the high exposure group after shift. Significant cross-shift declines in lung function parameters (forced expiratory volume in 1 s [FEV(1) (% predicted)] and forced vital capacity [FVC (% predicted)]) were measured in mastic asphalt workers. Pre-shift FEV(1) (% predicted) and FVC (% predicted) were higher in the low exposure group. In pre- and post-shift NALF samples, interleukin (IL)-1beta-, IL-8- and total protein concentrations were lower in the low exposure group compared to the reference and the high exposure group. Pre- and post-shift neutrophil percentages in both nasal and sputum samples were also lower in the low exposure group. Significantly higher pre- and post-shift sputum concentrations of IL-8, IL-6, nitrogen oxide (NO) derivatives and total protein were detected especially in highly exposed workers. Irritative effects of exposure to fumes and aerosols of bitumen on the upper and lower airways were apparent, especially in mastic asphalt workers with exposure above 10 mg/m(3).