The lung epithelial permeability to inhaled solutes is primarily attributed to the degree of distension of the interepithelial junctions and thus of the alveolar volume. To assess this hypothesis, a submicronic aerosol of technetium-99m-labeled diethylenetriamine pentaacetate (99mTc-DTPA) was inhaled by eight normal subjects in left lateral decubitus (LLD). The regional lung clearance of 99mTc-DTPA was measured in LLD, then in right lateral decubitus (RLD) to reverse the relative distension of the alveoli. Although in LLD the deposition of the aerosol is the greatest in the gravity-dependent regions of the left lung, their 99mTc-DTPA clearances are significantly lower than those of the nondependent regions of the right lung (0.7 +/- 0.3 vs. 2 +/- 0.8%/min, P less than 0.001). In RLD, these regions placed in opposite positions significantly reversed their clearances (1.6 +/- 0.8 vs. 0.6 +/- 0.2%/min, P less than 0.001). Results indicate in lateral decubitus a gravity gradient of 99mTc-DTPA clearances independent of the aerosol deposition. This gradient of epithelial permeability to solutes appears to be influenced by the gradient of alveolar volume.