Exposure to airborne particulate matter (PM) has been associated with adverse health effects in humans. Pulmonary inflammatory responses were examined in CD1 mice after intratracheal instillation of 25 or 100 microg of ultrafine (< 0.2 microm), fine (< 2.5 microm), and coarse (> 2.5 microm) coal fly ash from a combusted Montana subbituminous coal, and of fine and coarse fractions from a combusted western Kentucky bituminous coal. After 18 hr, the lungs were lavaged and the bronchoalveolar fluid was assessed for cellular influx, biochemical markers, and pro-inflammatory cytokines. The responses were compared with saline and endotoxin as negative and positive controls, respectively. On an equal-mass basis, the ultrafine particles from combusted Montana coal induced a higher degree of neutrophil inflammation and cytokine levels than did the fine or coarse PM. The western Kentucky fine PM caused a moderate degree of inflammation and protein levels in bronchoalveolar fluid that were higher than the Montana fine PM. Coarse PM did not produce any significant effects. In vitro experiments with rat alveolar macrophages showed that of the particles tested, only the Montana ultrafine displayed significant cytotoxicity. It is concluded that fly ash toxicity is inversely related with particle size and is associated with increased sulfur and trace element content.