Recent studies have found a declining prevalence of respiratory infections in East German children, along with a tremendous improvement of air pollution since 1990. The present study evaluates the effects of improved air quality on lung function. Three consecutive cross-sectional surveys of schoolchildren ages 11-14 years from three communities in East Germany were performed in 1992-1993, 1995-1996, and 1998-1999. Lung function tests were available from 2,493 children. The annual mean of total suspended particulates (TSP) declined from 79 to 25 micro g/m(3), whereas levels for sulfur dioxide declined from 113 to 6 micro g/m(3). Mean forced vital capacity (FVC) and forced expiratory volume in 1 sec (FEV(1)) of the children increased from 1992-1993 to 1998-1999. The adjusted percent change of the geometric mean of FVC was 4.7% for a 50 micro g/m(3) decrease of TSP (p = 0.043) and 4.9% for a decrement of 100 micro g/m(3) SO(2) (p = 0.029). Effects on FEV(1) were smaller and not statistically significant. Our study indicates that a reduction of air pollution in a short time period may improve children's lung function.