Glutathione (GSH) is one of the key components of the lung antioxidant defenses. Chronic smokers have higher GSH concentrations in their epithelial lining fluid than do nonsmokers. The aim of this study was to compare antioxidant concentrations in epithelial lining fluid (ELF) from nonsmokers, smokers with, and smokers without non-small-cell lung cancer. The study found that GSH in ELF from patients with lung cancer was significantly greater than in ELF from smokers and nonsmokers, at 1,485.5 +/- 208, 544 +/- 97.6 microM, and 339.3 +/- 112 microM, respectively (p < 0.05). In contrast, superoxide dismutase (SOD) was lower in ELF from patients with lung cancer than in that from smokers and nonsmokers, at 3.52 +/- 0.99, 30.82 +/- 8.2, and 43.91 +/- 10.1 U/ml, respectively (p < 0.05). Spontaneous superoxide anion release by adherent alveolar macrophages (AM) showed no difference between smokers with and without lung cancer. These data indicate that patients with lung cancer have marked modifications in their ELF antioxidant defenses by comparison with those of smokers. It is difficult to distinguish whether changed antioxidant status is a primary disturbance involved in the cancer process or whether it is a consequence of the neoplastic changes in malignancy.