Fly ash samples were collected from the electrostatic precipitator of a coal-fired power plant in Hong Kong. The particles of the respirable range (smaller than 10 μm) were divided into 4 groups according to their particle size (mass median aerodynamic diameters). The surface morphology and the metal contents (Fe, Mn, Al and Zn) of fly ash particles were examined by a scanning electron microscope and an inductively coupled plasma spectrophotometer, respectively. The particles were very heterogenous in size and shape as well as the concentration of metals. The cytotoxicity of these four groups of fly ash particles was evaluated using an in vitro rat alveolar macrophages culture assay. The viability of alveolar macrophages was lower when incubated with smaller size particles. This relationship was also reflected by the damage of the surface morphology of the cells and the release of cytoplasmic (lactate dehydrogenase) and lysosomal (acid phosphatase and β-glucuronidase) marker enzymes into the culture media. Copyright © 1989 Published by Elsevier Ltd.