Byssinosis is characterized by an obstructive bronchitis in some workers exposed to cotton dust. Mechanisms of airway alterations induced by cotton dust are unknown. To study mechanisms of these alterations, we administered an aqueous extract of cotton bract (CBE) to normal human subjects. After CBE inhalation, we demonstrated reproducible reductions in flow rates of variable magnitude. The percentage of polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN) recovered by bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) and total PMN per milliliter BAL fluid were increased after challenge with CBE, and these parameters were correlated (r = 0.556 and r = 0.553, respectively) with the degree of bronchoconstriction induced by CBE. In addition, chemotactic factors for PMN were noted in BAL fluid and in supernatant from BAL cell cultures. The degree of BAL fluid chemotactic activity correlated with the degree of bronchoconstriction induced by CBE. Assessment of molecular sieve column effluent demonstrated BAL fluid to have 3 distinct peaks of chemotactic activity (approximate molecular weight, >25,000, 10,000, and <1,000 daltons) and cell culture supernatant to contain 1 peak (approximate MW, 10,000 daltons). Complement activation as one source of BAL chemotactic activity was suggested by almost complete inhibition of BAL chemotactic activity after incubation with antibody to the fifth component of complement (C5) and detection of C5a des Arg in BAL fluid from some subjects challenged with CBE. These findings suggest that exposure of volunteer subjects to CBE results in a bronchoalveolar inflammatory response related to both complement activation and chemotactic factor synthesis by luminal cells.