There are at least three mechanisms by which alveolar macrophages play a critical role in protecting the lung from bacterial or viral infections: production of inflammatory cytokines that recruit and activate lung phagocytes, production of antimicrobial reactive oxidant species, and production of interferon (an antiviral agent). In this article we summarize data concerning the effect of exposure to diesel exhaust particles on these alveolar macrophage functions and the role of adsorbed organic chemicals compared to the carbonaceous core in the toxicity of diesel particles. In vitro exposure of rat alveolar macrophages to diesel exhaust particles decreased the ability of lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a bacterial product] to stimulate the production of inflammatory cytokines interleukin-1 (IL-1) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha). Methanol extract exhibited this potential but methanol-washed diesel particles did not. Exposure of rats to diesel exhaust particles by intratracheal instillation also decreased LPS-induced TNF-alpha and IL-1 production from alveolar macrophages. In contrast, carbon black did not exhibit this inhibitory effect. Exposure of rats to diesel exhaust particles by inhalation decreased the ability of alveolar macrophages to produce antimicrobial reactive oxidant species in response to zymosan (a fungal component). In contrast, exposure to coal dust increased zymosan-stimulated oxidant production. In vivo exposure to diesel exhaust particles but not to carbon black decreased the ability of the lungs to clear bacteria. Inhalation exposure of mice to diesel exhaust particles but not to coal dust depressed the ability of the lung to produce the antiviral agent interferon and increased viral multiplication in the lung. These results support the hypothesis that exposure to diesel exhaust particles increases the susceptibility of the lung to infection by depressing the antimicrobial potential of alveolar macrophages. This inhibitory effect appears to be due to adsorbed organic chemicals rather than the carbonaceous core of the diesel particles.