Recent epidemiological studies show an association between particulate air pollution and acute mortality and morbidity down to ambient particle concentrations below 100 micrograms/m3. Whether this association also implies a causality between acute health effects and particle exposure at these low levels is unclear at this time; no mechanism is known that would explain such dramatic effects of low ambient particle concentrations. Based on results of our past and most recent inhalation studies with ultrafine particles in rats, we propose that such particles, that is, particles below approximately 50 nm in diameter, may contribute to the observed increased mortality and morbidity In the past we demonstrated that inhalation of highly insoluble particles of low intrinsic toxicity, such as TiO2, results in significantly increased pulmonary inflammatory responses when their size is in the ultrafine particle range, approximately 20 nm in diameter. However, these effects were not of an acute nature and occurred only after prolonged inhalation exposure of the aggregated ultrafine particles at concentrations in the milligrams per cubic meter range. In contrast, in the course of our most recent studies with thermodegradation products of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) we found that freshly generated PTFE fumes containing singlet ultrafine particles (median diameter 26 nm) were highly toxic to rats at inhaled concentrations of 0.7-1.0 x 10(6) particles/cm3, resulting in acute hemorrhagic pulmonary inflammation and death after 10-30 min of exposure. We also found that work performance of the rats in a running wheel was severely affected by PTFE fume exposure. These results confirm reports from other laboratories of the highly toxic nature of PTFE fumes, which cannot be attributed to gas-phase components of these fumes such as HF, carbonylfluoride, or perfluoroisobutylene, or to reactive radicals. The calculated mass concentration of the inhaled ultrafine PTFE particles in our studies was less than 60 micrograms/m3, a very low value to cause mortality in healthy rats. Aging of the fumes with concomitant aggregation of the ultrafine particles significantly decreases their toxicity. Since ultrafine particles are always present in the urban atmosphere, we suggest that they play a role in causing acute lung injury in sensitive parts of the population.