The mechanism responsible for the increased air-space permeability in cigarette smokers is unknown. The aim of this study was to assess the acute and chronic effects of cigarette smoking on epithelial permeability, inflammation, and oxidant stress in the air spaces of smokers. Fourteen cigarette smokers underwent 99mTc-diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (99mTc-DTPA) lung scans after abstaining from smoking for 12 h (chronic smoking) and 1 h after smoking two cigarettes (acute smoking). Each smoker also underwent bronchoscopy and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) after either chronic (n = 8) or acute smoking (n = 7). Seven nonsmokers also underwent bronchoscopy and BAL. The time to 50% clearance of 99mTc-DTPA (t50) after chronic smoking was 16.7 +/- 1. 3 min (mean +/- SE), and was further reduced after acute smoking to 14.8 +/- 1.0 min (p < 0.01). Neutrophil numbers were increased in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) in the acute smoking group as compared with the nonsmokers (p < 0.05). Superoxide release from mixed BAL leukocytes was increased after chronic (p < 0.01) and acute (p < 0.001) smoking, as were thiobarbituric acid-reactive species (TBARS), providing evidence of lipid peroxidation in plasma (chronic, p < 0.05; acute, p < 0.05). Trolox equivalent antioxidant capacity (TEAC) was reduced in plasma (p < 0.001) and increased in BALF (p < 0.05) in both smoking groups. The study therefore showed an acute increase in epithelial permeability and an increase in the number of neutrophils in the air spaces of cigarette smokers concomitant with evidence of increased oxidant stress.