Neutrophils have been implicated in the pathogenesis of the adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). We have measured concentrations of the neutrophil attractant interleukin-8 in blood and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BAL) from patients at risk of ARDS. We studied 29 patients from three groups at risk of developing ARDS: multiple trauma (n = 16), perforated bowel (n = 6), and pancreatitis (n = 7). ARDS developed in 7 of these patients. Interleukin-8 in BAL and blood samples taken on initial hospital presentation was measured by a sandwich enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. The mean BAL interleukin-8 concentration was significantly higher for the patients who subsequently progressed to ARDS than for the non-ARDS group (3.06 [SE 2.64] vs 0.053 [0.010] ng/mL, p = 0.0006). There was no difference between the groups in plasma interleukin-8 (6.23 [2.60] vs 5.12 [2.22] ng/mL, p = 0.31). Immunocytochemistry suggested that the alveolar macrophage is an important source of interleukin-8 at this early stage in ARDS development. This study provides evidence of a relation between the presence of interleukin-8 in early BAL samples and the development of ARDS. The early appearance of interleukin-8 in BAL of patients at risk of ARDS may be an important prognostic indicator for the development of the disorder and reinforces the likely importance of neutrophils and the effects of their accumulation and activation in the pathogenesis of many cases of ARDS.