We analyzed biochemical data derived from 911 patients with renal insufficiency observed at our institution for periods up to 7 years. During early renal failure (RF) (creatinine less than 5 mg/dL), the rate of change of hematocrit, total CO2 (tCO2) and urea per unit change of creatinine was significantly higher than during moderate (creatinine between 5 and 10 mg/dL) or advanced (creatinine greater than 10 mg/dL) RF. For example, the rate of change of hematocrit (%, volume/volume [v/v]) was (mean +/- SEM) -2.15 +/- 0.15% for each 1 mg/dL increase in creatinine in the range of creatinine less than 5 mg/dL, whereas for the range of creatinine greater than 10 mg/dL, the rate of change was only -0.48 +/- 0.06% (P less than 0.001). Similarly, the rate of change of tCO2 was -1.68 +/- 0.09 mEq/L for each 1 mg/dL increment in creatinine concentration during early RF, and -0.19 +/- 0.09 mEq/L per unit increase in creatinine during advanced RF (P less than 0.001). Chloride concentration initially increased as a function of creatinine in early RF, but decreased in advanced RF, whereas the anion gap increased throughout the course of RF. Mean serum phosphate concentration also increased steadily, but remained below the upper range of normal (4.7 mg/dL) during early RF without the use of phosphate binders. These data suggest that different biochemical parameters change at different rates as a function of the severity of renal dysfunction, and that although phosphate retention may occur, hyperphosphatemia is not a hallmark of early RF.