OBJECTIVES--Among other constituents, fuel oil ash contains vanadium pentoxide, a known respiratory irritant. Exposure to ambient vanadium pentoxide dust has been shown to produce irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. The usefulness of nasal lavage in detecting an inflammatory response to exposure to fuel oil ash among 37 boilermakers and utility workers was investigated. METHODS--A baseline lavage was performed on the morning of the first day back to work after an average of 114 days away from work (range 36 hours to 1737 days). A lavage was performed after exposure on the morning three days after the baseline lavage. Exposure to respirable particulate matter of diameter < or = 10 microns (PM10) and respirable vanadium dust were estimated with daily work diaries and a personal sampling device for respirable particulates. These estimates were made for each subject on each workday during the three days between lavages. For each subject, the adjusted change in polymorphonuclear cells was calculated by dividing the change in polymorphonuclear cell counts by the average of the counts before and after exposure. The association between the adjusted polymorphonuclear cell counts and exposure was assessed with multiple linear regression, adjusted for age and current smoking. RESULTS--Personal sampling (one to 10 hour time weighted average) showed a range of PM10 concentrations of 50 to 4510 micrograms/m3, and respirable vanadium dust concentration of 0.10 to 139 micrograms/m3. In smokers the adjusted polymorphonuclear cell count was not significantly different from zero (-0.1%, P > 0.5), but in nonsmokers it was significantly greater than zero (+50%, P < 0.05). In both non-smokers and smokers, there was considerable variability in adjusted polymorphonuclear cell counts and a dose-response relation between these adjusted cell counts and either PM10 or respirable vanadium dust exposure could not be found. CONCLUSION--A significant increase in polymorphonuclear cells in non-smokers but not smokers was found. This suggests that in non-smokers, exposure to fuel oil ash is associated with upper airway inflammation manifested as increased polymorphonuclear cell counts. The lack of an increase in polymorphonuclear cells in smokers may reflect either a diminished inflammatory response or may indicate that smoking masks the effect of exposure to fuel oil ash.