Coal miners develop focal emphysema characterized by dilatation of second- and third-order respiratory bronchioles with coal mine dust-laden macrophages infiltrating the wall. A reticulin network with small amounts of collagen and atrophy of smooth muscle occurs. To evaluate the mechanisms of lung injury associated with this lesion, 17 long-term non- or ex-smoking West Virginia underground coal miners underwent bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) and were compared to healthy nonsmoker and smoker controls. The coal miners had evidence of an alveolar macrophage-neutrophil alveolitis with a significant increase in neutrophils/microliter of epithelial lining fluid and an increased gallium lung scan index (206 +/- 26 units). Alveolar macrophages lavaged from coal miners spontaneously released exaggerated amounts of superoxide anion and hydrogen peroxide in vitro compared to nonsmoking controls. Coal workers had significantly elevated levels of neutrophil elastase in BAL fluid complexed with alpha 1-antitrypsin (P less than 0.01) and normal levels of alpha 1-antitrypsin. An accumulation of activated, dust-laden inflammatory cells with increased release of oxidants and elastase may contribute to the development of focal emphysema identified at postmortem in miners with coal workers' pneumoconiosis.