Pulmonary effluent samples were obtained from 26 preterm or term infants throughout the period of endotracheal intubation. Infants with respiratory distress syndrome, infants with this disorder developing bronchopulmonary dysplasia, and intubated infants without lung disease were compared daily in terms of lung effluent cellularity, albumin, elastase activity, alpha 1-proteinase content and activity, and elastase inhibitory capacity. The elastase activity was determined to be neutrophilic in origin. Polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis of pulmonary effluents from two infants with respiratory distress syndrome and exposed to FiO2 greater than or equal to 0.6 up to 6 d revealed cleavage of alpha 1-proteinase inhibitor to a 47,000-mol weight fragment suggestive of oxidation. Pulmonary effluent neutrophils, macrophages, and elastase activity were increased by day 3 of life in infants with respiratory distress syndrome eventually developing bronchopulmonary dysplasia. Elastase inhibitory capacity and alpha 1-proteinase inhibitor activity were reduced in infants developing chronic lung disease. Bronchopulmonary dysplasia developed in infants with enhanced inflammatory response, but with less or inhibited antiprotease activity.