The contamination rates of medication nebulizers inserted into mechanical ventilator circuits were studied. Semiquantitative techniques were used to sample the reservoir fluid from in-line nebulizers during the first 24 hours after a circuit change. In the initial survey, high levels of contamination (organism concentrations above 10(3)/ml) were present in 13 (68 percent) of the 19 nebulizer reservoirs, and bacterial aerosols were produced by 10 (71 percent) of 14 nebulizers. Gram-negative bacilli were the predominant organisms isolated. Nebulizer contamination originated primarily from reflux of contaminated condensate in the ventilator circuit. When nebulizers were cleaned after each treatment, a reduced rate of contamination was found. Small bacterial aerosols (less than 3 microns in size) were produced in vitro after inoculation of nebulizers with gram-negative bacilli in concentrations isolated from in-use nebulizers. Contaminated in-line medication nebulizers generate small-particle bacterial aerosols that may increase the risk of ventilator-associated pneumonia and therefore should be cleaned or disinfected after each treatment rather than every 24 hours.