BACKGROUND: Asbestosis is associated with lung cellular and immunological abnormalities. Induced sputum cytology and local and systemic markers of inflammation may be helpful to characterize disease status and progression in these patients. METHODS: Thirty-nine ex-workers with asbestosis on high-resolution CT (HRCT) and 21 non-exposed controls were evaluated. Sputum cytology and IL-8 in serum and sputum were related to lung function impairment. RESULTS: Subjects with asbestosis had reduced sputum cellularity but higher macrophage/neutrophil ratio and % macrophage as compared with controls. Sputum and serum IL-8 were also higher in patients with asbestosis (P < 0.05). In addition, evidence of lung architectural distorption on HRCT was associated with increased levels of serum IL-8. Interestingly, absolute macrophage number was negatively correlated with total lung capacity (r = -0.40; P = 0.04) and serum IL-8 to lung diffusing capacity (r = -0.45; P = 0.01). CONCLUSIONS: Occupationally exposed subjects with asbestosis on HRCT have cytologic abnormalities in induced sputum and increased local and systemic pro-inflammatory status which are correlated to functional impairment.