The absorption and disposition of inorganic cobalt salts after oral administration have not been well characterized. The objectives of this study were to compare in vivo results with cobalt transport through the in vitro everted small intestine and to relate the disposition results to a biochemical indicator of cobalt toxicity. Cobalt chloride was given to male Fischer 344 rats orally at 33.3 mg Co(II)/kg or intravenously at 4.16 mg Co(II)/kg. By 36 h, 74.5% of the oral dose was eliminated in the feces. The liver, kidney, and heart accumulated cobalt to the greatest extent. Following the single oral dose, the blood cobalt concentration-time curve was triphasic, peaked at 3.2 h, and had an absorptive half-life of 0.9 h, an elimination phase half-life of 3.9 h, and a terminal elimination half-life of 22.9 h. Following intravenous administration, 10.1% of the dose was excreted in the feces, indicating that cobalt can be secreted in the bile. Following a single intravenous injection, the concentration-time curve displayed three segments. The first segment, which occurred during the first 4 h, had a rapid half-life of 1.3 h. The second phase, from 4 to 12 h, demonstrated a slower clearance rate with a half-life of 4.3 h. The final and slowest phase, from 12 to 36 h, had a half-life of 19 h. Intestinal jejunal ring experiments indicated that cobalt transport has both active and passive components; however, cobalt transport through the in vitro rat everted duodenum indicated that cobalt transport had almost exclusively passive components with facilitated diffusion. The finding that uptake was saturable may explain the small extent of absorption following oral dosing. Heme oxygenase studies following subcutaneous and intravenous administration resulted in an increase in activity (twofold) over controls, while oral administration did not. We concluded that the extent of cobalt absorption across the gastrointestinal tract is incomplete, and that the concentration administered and the route of exposure may determine its systemic toxicity.