Exposure to wood dust is common in many workplaces. Epidemiological studies indicate that occupational exposure to hardwood dusts is more harmful than to softwood dusts. In this study, human epithelial cell line A549 was incubated with well-characterized dusts from six commonly used wood species and from medium density fibreboard (MDF), at concentrations between 10 and 300 mu g/ml. After 3 and 6 h of incubation, genotoxicity was assessed by measurement of DNA damage with the single-cell gel electrophoresis (comet) assay and inflammation was measured by the expression of IL-6 and IL-8 mRNA and by the amount of IL-8 protein. There was a 1.2-1.4-fold increase in DNA strand breaks after incubation with beech, teak, pine and MDF dusts compared with the levels in untreated cells, but after 6 h only the increase induced by the MDF dust remained. Increased expression of cellular IL-6 and IL-8 mRNA was induced by all of the wood dusts at both times. Similar to IL-8 mRNA expression, the amounts of secreted IL-8 protein were elevated, except after incubation with oak dust, where a marginal reduction was seen. On the basis of the effects on IL-8 mRNA expression, the wood dusts could be divided into three groups, with teak dust being the most potent, MDF, birch, spruce and pine being intermediate, and beech and oak being the least potent. The induction of DNA strand breaks did not correlate well with the interleukin response. In conclusion, all wood dusts induced cytokine responses, and some dusts induced detectable DNA damage. The inflammatory potency seemed intermediate for dusts from the typical softwoods spruce and pine, whereas the dusts from species linked to cancer, beech and oak, were the least inflammatory. The variation of the effects induced by different wood dusts over time indicates that the DNA damage was not secondary to the cytokine response. Although hardwoods are often considered more harmful than softwoods by regulatory agencies, the current experiments do not provide evidence for a clear-cut distinction between toxicities of hardwood and softwood dust.