Acute hypoxemic respiratory failure (AHRF) can result from diverse lung insults. Toxic oxygen metabolites have been implicated in this clinical condition and in animal models of pulmonary edema. Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), an oxygen metabolite, mediates tissue injury. We measured H2O2 levels by a spectrophotometric technique in the breath condensate of 68 mechanically ventilated patients; 13 patients with normal lungs undergoing elective surgery had no such detectable levels of H2O2. Fifty-five patients in the ICU meeting criteria for the adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) had a higher concentration of H2O2 in the expired breath condensate than ICU patients without pulmonary infiltrates (2.34 +/- 1.15 vs 0.99 +/- 0.72 mumol/L, p less than 0.005). This marker had a sensitivity of 87.5 percent and a specificity of 81.3 percent in separating the two patient populations. Patients with AHRF and focal pulmonary infiltrates who did not meet criteria for ARDS also had higher concentrations of H2O2 (2.45 +/- 1.55 mumol/L) than patients without pulmonary infiltrates (p less than 0.001). No difference was observed between the expired H2O2 concentrations of patients with ARDS or patients with focal pulmonary infiltrates. Patients with brain injury or sepsis tended to have higher levels of H2O2 regardless of lung pathology. Increased levels of H2O2 are detected in the expired breath of ICU patients with focal lung infiltrates and in ARDS patients, which is consistent with the hypothesis that oxygen metabolites participate in the pathogenesis of ARDS and other forms of AHRF.