The adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a devastating clinical illness characterized by refractory hypoxemia and high-permeability pulmonary edema. Reactive oxygen species such as hydrogen peroxide and hypochlorous acid may play a key role in the pathogenesis of the acute lung injury. Glutathione (GSH) is a tripeptide that is able to react with and effectively neutralize oxidants such as hydrogen peroxide and hypochlorous acid. The present study found that the alveolar epithelial lining fluid of patients with ARDS was deficient in total GSH compared to normal subjects (21.7 mumols +/- 7.8 mumols vs 91.8 mumols +/- 14.5 mumols; p = 0.002). In addition, if GSH was measured in unconcentrated bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid and indexed to total BAL protein, there was also a deficiency in patients with ARDS compared to normal subjects (0.004 +/- 0.003 nmol of GSH per microgram of total protein vs 0.026 +/- 0.005 nmol of GSH per microgram of total protein; p = 0.002). Since patients with ARDS are subjected to an increased burden of oxidants in the alveolar fluid, principally released by recruited neutrophils, this deficiency of GSH may predispose these patients to enhanced lung cell injury.