Occupational exposure to cedar and pine woods and pine resin (colophony) can cause asthma and chronic lung disease. Prior studies suggest that plicatic and abietic acids are responsible for the asthmatic reactions that occur in cedar-wood and colophony workers; however, the etiologic mechanism(s) of the chronic lung disease is unknown. To determine if plicatic acid from cedar wood and abietic acid from pine resin could directly damage lung cells, we exposed monolayers of rat type II and human A549 alveolar epithelial cells, intact rat lungs, and rat tracheal explants to solutions of plicatic and abietic acids. As indices of injury, we measured lysis of alveolar epithelial cells with a 51Cr technique, quantitative desquamation of epithelial cells from tracheal explants, and histologic alterations in tracheal explants and intact lungs. Plicatic and abietic acids both caused dose- and time-dependent lysis of alveolar epithelial cells. Instillation of plicatic and abietic acids into rat lungs produced bronchial epithelial sloughing. Abietic acid also caused destruction of the alveolar epithelium. The addition of either acid to rat tracheal explants caused epithelial desquamation that was dose- and time-dependent. Our results suggest that plicatic acid, a unique constituent of cedar wood, and abietic acid, the major constituent in pine resin, can produce lytic damage to alveolar, tracheal, and bronchial epithelial cells. We hypothesize that repeated occupational exposure to these substances might promote the chronic lung damage observed in some cedar- and pine-wood workers and in electronic workers exposed to colophony.