OBJECTIVES: Inhalation of bioaerosols has been hypothesised to cause "toxic pneumonitis" that should increase lung epithelial permeability at the bronchioloalveolar level. Serum Clara cell protein (CC16) and serum surfactant protein B (SPB) have been proposed as sensitive markers of lung epithelial injury. This study was aimed at looking for increased lung epithelial permeability by determining CC16 and SPB in workers exposed to bioaerosols from wastewater or garbage. METHODS: Subjects (778 wastewater, garbage and control workers; participation 61%) underwent a medical examination, lung function tests [American Thoracic Society (ATS) criteria], and determination of CC16 and SPB. Symptoms of endotoxin exposure and several potential confounders (age, gender, smoking, kidney function, obesity) were looked for. Results were examined with multiple linear or logistic regression. RESULTS: Exposure to bioaerosols increased CC16 concentration in the wastewater workers. No effect of exposure on SPB was found. No clue to work-related respiratory diseases was found. CONCLUSIONS: The increase in CC16 in serum supports the hypothesis that bioaerosols cause subclinical "toxic pneumonitis", even at low exposure.