Treatment of acute lung injury (ALI) and its most severe form, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), remain unsolved problems of intensive care medicine. ALI/ARDS are characterized by lung edema due to increased permeability of the alveolar-capillary barrier and subsequent impairment of arterial oxygenation. Lung edema, endothelial and epithelial injury are accompanied by an influx of neutrophils into the interstitium and broncheoalveolar space. Hence, activation and recruitment of neutrophils are regarded to play a key role in progression of ALI/ARDS. Neutrophils are the first cells to be recruited to the site of inflammation and have a potent antimicrobial armour that includes oxidants, proteinases and cationic peptides. Under pathological circumstances, however, unregulated release of these microbicidal compounds into the extracellular space paradoxically can damage host tissues. This review focuses on the mechanisms of neutrophil recruitment into the lung and on the contribution of neutrophils to tissue damage in ALI.