The influence of age, sex, and renal function on serum levels and urinary excretion of free carnitine was studied in 187 subjects. Sixty-one subjects with normal renal function (creatinine clearance greater than 100 ml/min) showed a serum carnitine level of 72.2 +/- 23.2 mumol/l. The carnitine values of males (76.8 +/- 23.3 mumol/l, n = 39) were higher (p less than 0.05) than those of females (64.0 +/- 21.0 mumol/l, n = 22). Carnitine levels did not correlate with age. Values in patients with normal renal function did not differ from serum carnitine levels in healthy controls (74.7 +/- 17.5 mumol/l, n = 49). The mean urinary carnitine excretion per day was 163.5 mumol (range 63.7-419.6 mumol) in patients with intact renal function. Extreme impairment of glomerular filtration rate (creatinine clearance less than 20 ml/min) resulted in higher carnitine concentrations in serum (108.9 +/- 39.4 mumol/l, n = 18, p less than 0.05), lower carnitine elimination per day (78.5 mumol, range 14.5 - 424.3 mumol, n = 18, p less than 0.05) and a decreased carnitine clearance (0.8 ml/min, range 0.2 - 3.8 ml/min). These data together with earlier results obtained in dialysis patients suggest that carnitine metabolism in renal failure is altered by reduction of both endogenous carnitine biosynthesis and renal carnitine clearance.