Metallic elements contained in coal, oil and gasoline are mobilized by combustion processes and may be emitted into the atmosphere, mainly as components of submicron particles. The information about the amounts, composition and form of metal compounds is reviewed for some fuels and combustion processes. Since metal compounds are always contained in urban air pollutants, they have to be considered whenever an evaluation of biological impact of air pollutants is made. The value of currently used bioassays for the evaluation of the role of trace metal compounds, either as major biologically active components or as modifiers of biological effects of organic compounds is assessed. The whole animal bioassays for carcinogenicity do not seem to be an appropriate approach. They are costly, time-consuming and not easily amenable to the testing of complex mixtures. Some problems related to the application and interpretation of short-term bioassays are considered, and the usefulness of such bioassays for the evaluation of trace metal components contained in complex air pollution mixtures is examined.