The antibacterial activity of phagocytic cells and opsonins in peritoneal dialysis effluents from 21 patients undergoing chronic peritoneal dialysis (CPD) was studied. Effluents contained an average of 12 x 10(6) cells per liter that were predominantly macrophages. Macrophages phagocytized and killed opsonized Staphylococcus epidermidis, Staphylococcus aureus, and Escherichia coli as efficiently as did polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMNs) from healthy donors. Macrophage chemiluminescence was one-third of that observed with donor PMNs. In the absence of opsonins, macrophages efficiently phagocytized and killed S. aureus by binding S. aureus cell wall protein A to macrophage surface IgG. Nine (43%) of 21 effluents failed to opsonize S. epidermidis, and none opsonized E. coli. When present, titers of S. epidermidis opsonins were 50- to 100-fold lower than that of normal serum. IgG and C3 concentrations in effluent reflected its opsonic capacity. Macrophages from patients undergoing CPD thus have intact phagocytic and bactericidal functions. However, the low level of opsonic molecules and inadequate numbers of macrophages in the peritoneal cavity may predispose patients undergoing CPD to peritonitis.