Abstract A large-scale experiment was conducted to investigate the transport of trichloroethylene (TCE) vapors in the unsaturated zone and to determine the mass transfer to the groundwater and the atmosphere. The experiment involved injection of 5 l of TCE in the unsaturated zone under controlled conditions, with multidepth sampling of gas and water through the unsaturated zone and across the capillary zone into underlying groundwater. The mass transfer of TCE vapors from the vadose zone to the atmosphere was quantified using a vertical flux chamber. A special soil water sampler was used to monitor transport across the capillary fringe. Experimental data indicated that TCE in the unsaturated zone was mainly transported to the atmosphere and this exchange reduced significantly the potential for groundwater pollution. The maximum measured TCE flux to the atmosphere was about 3 g/m 2/day. Observed and calculated fluxes based on vertical TCE vapor concentration gradients and Fick's law were in good agreement. This confirms that TCE vapor transport under the experimental conditions was governed essentially by molecular diffusion. TCE vapors also caused a lower, but significant contamination of the underlying groundwater by dispersion across the capillary fringe with a corresponding maximum flux of about 0.1 g/m 2/day. This mass transfer to groundwater is partly uncertain due to an inadvertent entry of some nonaqueous phase liquid (NAPL) from the source area into the saturated zone. Application of an analytical solution to estimate the TCE flux from the unsaturated zone to the groundwater indicated that this phenomenon is not only influenced by molecular diffusion but also by vertical dispersion. The mass balance indicates that, under the given experimental conditions (e.g. proximity of the source emplacement relative to the soil surface, relatively high permeable porous medium), nearly 95% of the initial TCE mass was transferred to the atmosphere.