Bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) is increasingly used in the pediatric age group. However, normal values for BAL fluid (BALF) constituents are lacking. As part of an investigation to define reference values in children, we studied lymphocyte surface markers of BALF in 28 children 3 to 16 yr of age without bronchopulmonary disease. All of them were undergoing elective surgery for nonpulmonary illnesses. BAL was performed under general anaesthesia with tracheal intubation. A flexible bronchoscope (Pentax 3.5 or 4.9 mm) was wedged into the middle lobe or into one of its segments, and 3 x 1 ml/kg body weight normal saline warmed to body temperature were instilled and immediately withdrawn. The first sample was studied separately; subsequent samples were pooled for analysis. Studies on lymphocyte surface markers were performed on the pooled sample only. The distribution of B-cells, pan T-cells, and CD57 positive cells was within the range reported for adult subjects. However, CD4/CD8 ratios were lower than in adults (0.7 +/- 0.4, mean +/- SD). This decrease in the CD4/CD8 ratio was caused by an increase in CD8 cells. Comparative analysis of blood and BALF lymphocytes in a subgroup of children showed that CD4/CD8 ratios in blood were within the normal range reported for this age group and significantly higher when compared with BALF. The lower CD4/CD8 ratios in normal children have to be considered in the interpretation of BALF in children with pulmonary diseases.