From a randomly selected community population sample followed with sequential surveys since 1972, 13 subjects who exhibited a mean annual decline in FEV1 greater than 60 ml/yr were drawn for detailed studies of lung function. These subjects had developed clinically significant airway obstruction during this period of follow-up. Clinical evaluation was not successful in characterizing the nature of the disorder. None of the subjects had alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. In a small proportion of subjects, elevated total serum immunoglobulin E may have played a role in the obstructive airway disorder. Some subjects exhibited loss of lung elastic recoil and diminished carbon monoxide diffusing capacity suggestive of developing emphysema. Others appeared to have intrinsic airway disease involving large and/or small airways, which may be fixed in some and responsive to bronchodilator in others. Thus, neither the site nor the nature of the disorder inferred from results of physiologic tests was uniform, illustrating the heterogeneous nature of chronic obstructive lung disease.