Bronchoalveolar lavage has been used to sample cells and proteins in the distal lung. One of the major secretory products of the alveolar type II epithelial cells, pulmonary surfactant, can be recovered by lavage. Abnormalities in alveolar type II cells are found in biopsies of patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), and abnormalities of pulmonary surfactant phospholipids have been reported after diffuse lung injury in animals and in humans. Therefore, we questioned if abnormalities in lavage phospholipids might also occur in IPF, a chronic inflammatory disease of the alveolar epithelium and interstitium, and, if present, would these abnormalities reflect histopathologic changes or predict responsiveness to therapy. Fifteen untreated patients with IPF, diagnosed by open lung biopsy, were studied and were found to have less than half the amount of bronchoalveolar lavage phospholipid as that recovered from healthy volunteers (p less than 0.05). In addition, patients with IPF had a lower proportion of phosphatidylglycerol and a higher proportion of phosphatidylinositol in the recovered phospholipids than did healthy volunteers (p less than 0.05). The severity of these alterations in phospholipid composition correlated with more advanced fibrotic histopathologic changes. Patients with less depression of total phospholipids in lavage improved with corticosteroid therapy, whereas the patients with more severely decreased total phospholipid recovered in lavage did not.