Endotoxemia initiates a cytokine response that is thought to mediate the syndromes of sepsis and multiple organ failure. This study measured cytokine levels in the blood and airways of rats at critical time points during the development of lung injury induced by chronic endotoxin (LPS) infusion in the rat. Tumor necrosis factor-± (TNF), interleukin-1-± (IL-1), and interleukin-6 (IL-6) were measured in the blood and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) of endotoxemic and control animals. BALF was also studied for the percentage of neutrophil (PMN) count and chemotactic activity. Lung histology was determined at 72 h following infusion of LPS. Chronic endotoxemia of ≥48 h but not ≤24 h resulted in severe acute lung injury (ALI). Circulating levels of TNF and IL-1 were only transiently elevated, whereas IL-6 remained elevated in the endotoxemic rats. TNF, IL-1, and IL-6 levels in BALF were only transiently elevated. Chemotactic activity, levels of cytokine-induced neutrophil chemoattractant (CINC), and the percentage of PMN counts in BALF all increased significantly by 36 h. Other potential chemoattractants; leukotriene B4 and transforming growth factor-± were not elevated in BALF. In conclusion, severe ALI requires a minimum of 48 h LPS infusion in this model and is associated with high levels of circulating IL-6, increased CINC activity, and an increased percentage of PMN count in BALF. Local inflammatory events may be as important as the systemic cytokine milieu in mediating ALI. The signal for these local events does not appear to depend solely on the transient elevations of circulating TNF and IL-1 at the onset of endotoxemia, although sustained high levels of IL-6 may be important.