Tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a compartmentalized cytokine, is a key mediator in the systemic inflammatory response syndrome and may play a role in multiorgan failure. To assess whether compartmentalization of alveolar TNF is preserved following lung injury, isolated perfused lungs from Sprague-Dawley rats were given intratracheally 1 ml/kg of phosphate-buffered saline (PBS), 0.1 mg/kg of lipopolysaccharide (LPS), or 125,000 units of murine recombinant TNF (mrTNF). To induce lung leak, one group of rats was given 50 mg/kg of alpha-naphthylthiourea (ANTU) intraperitoneally. Then, 125,000 units mrTNF was given intratracheally to these lungs. Samples of perfusate were assayed for TNF by the L929 cytotoxicity assay before (0 min) and 180 min after the intratracheal challenge, and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) was performed for TNF assay. ANTU increased lung leak but intratracheal TNF and LPS did not. The isolated perfused lung preparation expressed small amounts of perfusate TNF and underwent minimal leak that was not caused by TNF release. Endogenous or exogenous intrapulmonary TNF remained predominantly compartmentalized, but following ANTU, TNF readily appeared in the perfusate. Compartmentalization of alveolar TNF is lost during alveolar-capillary injury, suggesting that the injured lung may contribute to a systemic inflammatory response and subsequent multiorgan failure.