Secretory leukocyte protease inhibitor (SLPI) and elafin are structurally similar, low-molecular-weight antiproteases produced in the lung. We have developed a simple method for distinguishing the antiprotease activities of SLPI and elafin in lung lavage fluid from those of alpha 1-antitrypsin (alpha 1-AT) that is based on the resistance of the low-molecular-weight antiproteases to inactivation by cetyltrimethylammonium bromide. In a study of 23 healthy, nonsmoking volunteers, we found that the low-molecular-weight antiproteases accounted for 22 +/- 2% (mean +/- SEM, n = 23) of the total neutrophil elastase-inhibitory capacity of human bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF). Elafin activity was below the limit of detection. SLPI activity (as measured by inhibition of alpha-chymotrypsin) accounted for 72 +/- 4% (mean +/- SEM, n = 23) of the low-molecular-weight antiprotease activity in BALF. Measurements of SLPI in the lavage fluid samples by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) agreed closely with values obtained by measuring the activity of this inhibitor. The activity of the low-molecular-weight antiproteases decreased significantly (p < 0.05), from 9.0 +/- 0.8 to 7.0 +/- 0.6 pmol of neutrophil elastase inhibited per mL (mean +/- SEM, n = 23), following acute ozone exposure.