The significance of endotoxemia in man is controversial, induces cytokine release and stimulates the immune system. Exaggerated cytokine release of mononuclear cells was observed in acute lung injury/acute respiratory distress syndrome (ALI/ARDS). However, repetitive administration of endotoxin can cause tolerance. To investigate endotoxemia, plasma TNFalpha, IL-1beta, IL-6, the liberation capacity of those cytokines from mononuclear cells after LPS challenge (Delta values), and plasma antibodies to endotoxins and alpha-hemolysin of Staphylococcus aureus in ALI/ARDS. A prospective clinical study was conducted. The study was carried out at the University Hospital Ulm, Ulm, Germany. The respondents were 23 patients with ALI/ARDS. ALI/ARDS was defined according to the American-European Consensus Conference on ARDS. Blood was collected periodically. Parameters were measured by LAL or ELISA. ARDS (P(a)O(2)/F(i)O(2) < 200) revealed higher endotoxemia (0.22-0.46 [0.06-1.15] EU/mL vs 0.05-0.14 [0.02-0.63] EU/mL) than ALI (P(a)O(2)/F(i)O(2) > 200) but lower DeltaIL-6 (124-209 [10-1214] pg/mL vs 298-746 [5-1797] pg/mL), DeltaTNFalpha (50-100 [6-660] pg/mL vs 143-243 [12-2795] pg/mL), and DeltaIL-1 (2-3 [0-26] pg/mL vs 2-14 [0-99] pg/mL). Endotoxemia correlated negative with P(a)O(2)/F(i)O(2) (r, -0.44 to -0.50). All patients presented antibodies to lipopolysaccharides and alpha-hemolysin, but the level did not correlate with P(a)O(2)/F(i)O(2). ALI/ARDS is associated with endotoxemia. The more severe the disease, the more intense is endotoxemia but the lower is the capacity of mononuclear cells to release cytokines (tolerance). Antibodies against Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria are detectable in the plasma but without relation to P(a)O(2)/F(i)O(2).