Extracellular fluid volume (ECV) is larger when measured with Tc-99m-DTPA ( approximately 500 Da) than inulin (6 kDa). As part of an assessment of the suitability of the non-radioactive marker, iohexol, against the gold standard tracer, Cr-51-EDTA, for measurement of the glomerular filtration rate (GFR) based on a postal service, we took the opportunity to determine if this volume dependence is present for diffusible markers less disparate in size than inulin and Tc-99m-DTPA. Cr-51-EDTA ( approximately 400 Da) and iohexol ( approximately 900 Da) were administered into the opposite arms of 20 normal volunteers (fasting and non-fasting) and 60 patients (non-fasting), including 36 diabetics, 10 cancer patients and 13 dermatology patients. Blood was obtained from both arms 20, 40, 60, 120, 180 and 240 min after injection and assayed for a marker injected contra-laterally. The glomerular filtration rate (GFR) and mean indicator transit time, T, were measured from the bi-exponential clearance curves. ECV, the product of GFR and T, was subdivided into V(1) (administered indicator divided by the sum of zero-time intercepts of the two exponentials) and V(2) (the difference between V(1) and ECV). Variables were scaled to 1.73 m(2). For all 100 studies, the mean GFR from Cr-51-EDTA was 3 ml min(-1) higher than iohexol (p < 0.01). ECV was 0.41 L higher (p < 0.02) and V(1) 0.65 L higher (p < 0.001) from Cr-51-EDTA but V(2) was 0.33 L lower (p < 0.02). V(1)/ECV was 0.031 higher from Cr-51-EDTA (p < 0.01). ECV and V(2) from Cr-51-EDTA were both higher in diabetics (15.1 [1.7] and 5.0 [0.095] L, respectively) compared with normal non-fasting subjects (13.7 [1.5] and 4.3 [1.0]; p < 0.01). ECV and the volumes of its sub-compartments are different between markers that are less than an order of magnitude different in size.