Previous studies have raised the question of whether pentane is a normal constituent of human breath, since its concentrations in inspired room air and expired breath are often similar. Using a highly sensitive assay for volatile organic compounds, we studied 37 normal subjects in order to determine the alveolar gradient of pentane in their breath (i.e. concentration in alveolar breath minus concentration in the inspired air). The chemical identity of pentane was confirmed by mass spectroscopy. The alveolar gradient of pentane was zero +/- 0.175 nmol/l in 54.1% of subjects, and distributed in an approximately bell-shaped curve. Determination of the alveolar gradient divided the normal subjects into three groups: the "passive equilibrators" who did not appear to excrete pentane in the breath (the majority), "metabolizers" who actively catabolized inhaled pentane, and "manufacturers" who excreted more pentane than they inhaled.