Chronic exposure to coalmine dust is associated with the accumulation of inflammatory leukocytes in the bronchoalveolar region of the lung and, in the long term, with fibrosis and emphysema of the lung parenchyma. Degradation of connective tissue by inflammatory leukocytes has been implicated in the parenchymal damage that precedes the development of fibrotic or emphysematous lesions in the lung. The ability of inflammatory leukocytes obtained by bronchoalveolar lavage from rats inhaling coalmine dust to degrade fibronectin in vitro was assessed. The animals were exposed to an airborne mass concentration of dust similar to the maximum permissible level in United Kingdom collieries. The bronchoalveolar lavage cell population showed changes with duration of dust exposure; there were increases in the total number of leukocytes and in the percentage of polymorphonuclear leukocytes, and the macrophage component of the lavage became increasingly activated, as assessed by the ability of these cells to spread on glass. In addition, degradation of a radiolabelled fibronectin matrix by the coalmine dust exposed bronchoalveolar leukocytes increased with duration of dust exposure. Thus exposure to airborne coalmine dust causes an influx of inflammatory leukocytes to the alveolar region. These cells have enhanced ability to degrade fibronectin and this may be important in subsequent disease development.