The effect of hepatic blood flow on the elimination of several highly cleared substrates was studied in the once-through perfused rat liver preparation. A constant and low input concentration of ethanol (2.0 mM), [14C]-phenacetin and [3H]-acetaminophen (0.36 and 0.14 microM, respectively), or meperidine (8.1 microM) was delivered once-through the rat liver preparation in five flow periods (greater than 35 min each); control flow periods at 12 ml/min were interrupted by flow changes to 8 or 16 ml/min. The steady-state hepatic availabilities (F or outflow survivals) at 12 ml/min were ethanol, 0.075 +/- 0.038; [14C]-phenacetin, 0.15 +/- 0.059; [3H]-acetaminophen, 0.34 +/- 0.051; meperidine, 0.047 +/- 0.017. Flow-induced changes were different among the compounds: with reduced flow (8 ml/min), F was decreased for ethanol (0.061 +/- 0.032) and [3H]-acetaminophen (0.28 +/- 0.051), as expected, but was increased for [14C]-phenacetin (0.20 +/- 0.068) and meperidine (0.05 +/- 0.03); with an elevation of flow (to 16 ml/min), F was increased for all compounds, as expected of shorter sojourn times: ethanol, 0.13 +/- 0.065; [14C]-phenacetin, 0.22 +/- 0.062; [3H]-acetaminophen, 0.43 +/- 0.063; meperidine, 0.055 +/- 0.022. A marked increase in F for ethanol had occurred when flow changed from 12 to 16 ml/min due to nonlinear metabolism; the latter was confirmed by a reduction in the extraction ratios at increasing concentrations (1.8 to 11.4 mM); this condition was not present for the other compounds. In order to explain the observations, we used the multiple indicator dilution technique to investigate the flow-induced behaviors of tissue distribution spaces of vascular and intracellular references in the perfused rat liver preparation.