We studied the changes of coagulation and fibrinolysis in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) and plasma obtained serially at intervals after the onset of adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). BAL procoagulant activity was increased at 3 days and tended to decrease thereafter. Tissue factor associated with factor VII was the major BAL procoagulant. Fibrinopeptide A was increased, indicating increased thrombin-mediated conversion of fibrinogen to fibrin. Fibrinolytic activity was usually undetectable in BAL at 3 days post-ARDS and remained depressed for up to 14 days despite unchanged concentrations of urokinase and variably detectable tissue plasminogen activator. Depressed fibrinolytic activity was associated with increased antiplasmin activity and plasminogen activator inhibitor 1 (PAI-1) while PAI-2 concentrations approximated those of control samples and did not change during evolving ARDS. Evidence of systemic coagulopathy and increased systemic fibrin degradation were commonly found in serial ARDS plasma samples, consistent with accelerated vascular and/or extravascular fibrin deposition in these patients. The data indicate that intra-alveolar as well as systemic derangements of fibrin turnover are common features of evolving ARDS. Concurrent local abnormalities of both coagulation and fibrinolytic pathways favor persistence of alveolar fibrin for up to 14 days after clinical recognition of ARDS.