Since the adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) lung is known to be inhomogeneous, one could expect an uneven distribution of expiratory time constant during uninterrupted mechanical ventilation. We investigated the time constant/volume relationship of passive expiration, and their modification by external resistive elements. In 12 paralysed intubated ARDS patients, we determined the expiratory time constant (tau E) as a function of the expired volume (VE) during uninterrupted mechanical ventilation. Mean expiratory time was 2.9 +/- 0.3 s (+/- SD). VE was divided into five equal volume slices (portions) and a mean tau E calculated from the expiratory tidal volume/flow curve for each slice. The mean values of tau E for each volume slice did not differ significantly throughout expiration, averaging 690 +/- 218 ms (mean +/- SD of five slices and 12 patients). We show that the flow-dependent resistance of the endotracheal tube (RETT) is mainly responsible for the observed time constant homogeneity. We conclude that in ARDS patients during uninterrupted mechanical ventilation the time constants of passive expiration are markedly modified by the flow-dependent resistance of the endotracheal tube (RETT), and also by the external resistance of tubing and ventilator (REX). RETT and REX render tau E about three times larger than the time constant of the patient's respiratory system alone.