Nickel and cobalt, which belong to the same elemental group, are known to cause interstitial lung disease and bronchial asthma. The ability of these metals to injure lung cells and cause inflammation is likely to be important in their pathogenicity but comparative studies are rare. Additionally, ultrafine (uf) forms of these metals are used increasingly and there is little available information on their toxicity. Thus the inflammatory response following intratracheal instillation of ultrafine particles of Co, Ni, and TiO2 was compared. Physiological saline (PS) was used as a vehicle control and DQ12 quartz as a positive control. Male Wistar rats were intratracheally instilled with the 3 particle types at a dose of 1 mg suspended in physiological saline. At 1, 3, 7, 15, and 30 d after the injection, lung weight and the cellular and biochemical changes in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) were determined. By all of the indices, Uf-Ni appeared to be the most injurious to the lung, causing severe and sustained inflammation, cytotoxicity and increased epithelial permeability. The next most toxic material was DQ12 quartz, with Uf-Co being closely similar in ability to cause inflammation. Uf-TiO2 was more active than the saline control in all of the indices, but was the least toxic of the particles studied. The present study reveals that three ultrafine particles of the same diameter are dramatically different in their ability to cause inflammation. The three ultrafines were compared as to their ability to cause free-radical damage to supercoiled plasmid DNA, and the result of free-radical activity was found to be Uf-TiO2 << Uf-Co = Uf-Ni. Difference in free-radical-generation activity therefore could underlie the difference in inflammation of these three ultrafine particle types.