Chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides quench the fluorescence of N-alkyl derivatives of carbazole. We used phospholipids with covalently attached carbazole as probes for the interactions of chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides with lipid bilayers, the object being to understand better the toxicities of chlorinated hydrocarbons. Fluorescence quenching measurements revealed the lipid-water partition coefficients of the chlorinated hydrocarbons, their diffusion coefficients in the membranes, and the binding capacities of the membranes for the chlorinated hydrocarbons. Active insecticides were compared with inactive analogues to test whether activities correlated with chlorinated hydrocarbon-membrane interactions. Thus DDT and methoxychlor were compared with inactive DDE, and insecticidal γ-lindane was compared with three less active stereoisomers. The partition coefficients, diffusion coefficients and membrane saturation capacities did not correlate with insecticidal potency. The partition coefficients of these chlorinated hydrocarbons were larger in bilayers containing unsaturated fatty acyl chains as compared to bilayers containing saturated fatty acyl chains. Interestingly, neural membranes are known to contain a large percentage of unsaturated lipids. Our results indicate that the activities of chlorinated hydrocarbons are not a result of specific interactions of these compounds with the lipids of membranes. However, the neurotoxicity of chlorinated hydrocarbons may be amplified by selective partitioning in the unsaturated neural membranes.