Background - Evidence from laboratory studies suggestst that air pollution can produce bronchoconstriction and respiratory symptoms in selected subjects, but the relevance of these findings to expousre to natural pollution is unclear. This study was performed to determine whether air pollution at typical levels found in the UK has demonstrable effects on respiratory function and symptoms in subjects with airways disease. Methods - Seventy five adult patients with diagnoses of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) were studied for a period of four weeks during which they kept records of their peak expiratory flow (PEF) rates, symptoms (wheeze, dyspnoea, cough, throat and eye irritation), and bronchodilator use. Thirty six patients in whom the provocative dose of methacholine causing a 20% fall in FEV1 was below 12.25 μmol were classified as reactors. Ambient air pollution was measured with absorption spectroscopy. Results - There were modest but significant increases in PEF variability, bronchodilator use, and wheeze with increasing sulphur dioxide levels; bronchodilator use, dyspnoea, eye irritation, and minimum PEF readings were related to ozone levels. In the subgroup of reactors falls in mean and minimum peak flow and increases in wheeze, dyspnoea, and bronchodilator use were associated with increases in levels of both sulphur dioxide and ozone. Some associations were seen with pollution levels on the same day, but for others the pollution effects appeared to be delayed by 24 or 48 hours. Pollution levels did not breach the WHO guide levels during the course of the study. Conclusions - Increases in environmental levels of ozone and sulphur dioxide are associated with adverse changes in peak flow measurements and both ocular and respiratory symptoms in subjects with obstructive airways disease. Although the peak flow and symptom changes were modest, they occurred at pollution levels below current WHO guide levels.