Particulate pollutants have been suggested as a risk factor for increase in mortality and morbidity in patients with obstructive airway disease. In the present study we hypothesized that enhanced particle deposition dose is an underlying factor for such a finding. We measured lung deposition in normal healthy control subjects (N; n = 10) and in subjects with varying levels of airway obstruction: smokers (S; n = 10), smokers with small airways disease (SAD; n = 10), asthmatics (A; n = 5), and patients with chronic obstructive airway disease (COPD; n = 10). The subjects inhaled a uniform size sebacate aerosol (1-micron diameter) from a collapsible bag of a known volume (500 ml) repeatedly for as many as 15 breaths at a rate of 30 breaths/min. Aerosol concentration was monitored continuously at the mouth by a laser aerosol photometer. After correcting for particle loss in the bag, lung deposition fraction [DF = (inhaled minus exhaled)/inhaled], was determined breath by breath. DF values (mean +/- SD) were 0.14 +/- 0.02, 0.16 +/- 0.02, 0.21 +/- 0.05, 0.22 +/- 0.02 and 0.028 +/- 0.03 for N, S, SAD, A, and COPD, respectively. DF values in S, SAD, A, and COPD were 16, 49, 59, and 103% greater, respectively, than that of normal subjects (p < 0.05). DF of COPD was also greater than that of SAD or A (p < 0.05). No difference was found between SAD and A. When all of the subject data were combined, DF was correlated well with percent predicted FEV1 and FEF25-75 (r2 = 0.63 in both). The results indicate a marked increase in particle deposition in patients with obstructive lung disease, and this can be an important factor for the development of the adverse health effects of pollutant particles on the one hand and for the treatment of patients with drug aerosols on the other.