In this study, we attempted to establish the prevalence and nature of pulmonary dysfunction in a cross section of a diabetic population and the relationship of pulmonary dysfunction to diabetic factors and complications. Forty insulin-dependent diabetic patients, 15 to 60 yr of age, and 40 healthy reference subjects, matched for age, sex, and race, were studied. All subjects were lifelong nonsmokers and had no clinical evidence of past or present respiratory disease. Lung function was assessed from the flow-volume curve, single-breath nitrogen washout, static lung elastic recoil, and pulmonary diffusing capacity (DLCO/VA) and its components: membrane diffusing capacity (Dm/VA) and pulmonary capillary blood volume (Qc/VA). The diabetic patients had an increased value for Kst(L) and in Kst(L), the exponential shape constant of the pressure-volume curve compared with that of the reference subjects (Kst(L), 0.184 +/- 0.011 versus 0.135 +/- 0.005; p less than 0.005, mean +/- SEM). The DL/VA was lower in the diabetic subjects (4.62 = 0.12 versus 5.31 +/- 0.10 ml/min/mm Hg/L; p less than 0.001), and this was due to a lower Qc/VA (9.45 +/- 0.43 versus 11.75 +/- 0.35 ml/min; p less than 0.001). The Kst(L) and Qc/VA were correlated with the duration of diabetes. The In Kst(L) was negatively correlated with both DL/VA (r = -0.32, p less than 0.05) and Qc/VA (r = -0.36, p less than 0.05). There was no association between abnormal pulmonary function and the presence of other diabetic complications. It is concluded that there are mild, duration-related abnormalities of lung elastic recoil and pulmonary diffusing capacity and a reduction in pulmonary capillary blood volume in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.