Hydrolytic metabolism of pyrethroid insecticides in humans is one of the major catabolic pathways that clear these compounds from the body. Rodent models are often used to determine the disposition and clearance rates of these esterified compounds. In this study the distribution and activities of esterases that catalyze pyrethroid metabolism have been investigated in vitro using several human and rat tissues, including small intestine, liver and serum. The major esterase in human intestine is carboxylesterase 2 (hCE2). We found that the pyrethroid trans-permethrin is effectively hydrolyzed by a sample of pooled human intestinal microsomes (5 individuals), while deltamethrin and bioresmethrin are not. This result correlates well with the substrate specificity of recombinant hCE2 enzyme. In contrast, a sample of pooled rat intestinal microsomes (5 animals) hydrolyze trans-permethrin 4.5-fold slower than the sample of human intestinal microsomes. Furthermore, it is demonstrated that pooled samples of cytosol from human or rat liver are approximately 2-fold less hydrolytically active (normalized per mg protein) than the corresponding microsomal fraction toward pyrethroid substrates; however, the cytosolic fractions do have significant amounts (approximately 40%) of the total esteratic activity. Moreover, a 6-fold interindividual variation in carboxylesterase 1 protein expression in human hepatic cytosols was observed. Human serum was shown to lack pyrethroid hydrolytic activity, but rat serum has hydrolytic activity that is attributed to a single CE isozyme. We purified the serum CE enzyme to homogeneity to determine its contribution to pyrethroid metabolism in the rat. Both trans-permethrin and bioresmethrin were effectively cleaved by this serum CE, but deltamethrin, esfenvalerate, alpha-cypermethrin and cis-permethrin were slowly hydrolyzed. Lastly, two model lipase enzymes were examined for their ability to hydrolyze pyrethroids. However, no hydrolysis products could be detected. Together, these results demonstrate that extrahepatic esterolytic metabolism of specific pyrethroids may be significant. Moreover, hepatic cytosolic and microsomal hydrolytic metabolism should each be considered during the development of pharmacokinetic models that predict the disposition of pyrethroids and other esterified compounds.