The acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a process of nonhydrostatic pulmonary edema and hypoxemia associated with a variety of etiologies, carries a high morbidity, mortality (10 to 90%), and financial cost. The reported annual incidence in the United States is 150,000 cases, but this figure has been challenged, and it may be different in Europe. Part of the reason for these uncertainties are the heterogeneity of diseases underlying ARDS and the lack of uniform definitions for ARDS. Thus, those who wish to know the true incidence and outcome of this clinical syndrome are stymied. The American-European Consensus Committee on ARDS was formed to focus on these issues and on the pathophysiologic mechanisms of the process. It was felt that international coordination between North America and Europe in clinical studies of ARDS was becoming increasingly important in order to address the recent plethora of potential therapeutic agents for the prevention and treatment of ARDS.