Particulate air pollution (PM) is an important environmental health risk factor for many different diseases. This is indicated by numerous epidemiological studies on associations between PM exposure and occurrence of acute respiratory infections, lung cancer and chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The biological mechanisms behind these associations are not fully understood, but the results of in vitro toxicological research have shown that PM induces several types of adverse cellular effects, including cytotoxicity, mutagenicity, DNA damage and stimulation of proinflammatory cytokine production. Because traffic is an important source of PM emission, it seems obvious that traffic intensity has an important impact on both quantitative and qualitative aspects of ambient PM, including its chemical, physical and toxicological characteristics. In this review, the results are summarized of the most recent studies investigating physical and chemical characteristics of ambient and traffic-related PM in relation to its toxicological activity. This evaluation shows that, in general, the smaller PM size fractions (<PM(10)) have the highest toxicity, contain higher concentrations of extractable organic matter (comprising a wide spectrum of chemical substances), and possess a relatively high radical-generating capacity. Also, associations between chemical characteristics and PM toxicity tend to be stronger for the smaller PM size fractions. Most importantly, traffic intensity does not always explain local differences in PM toxicity, and these differences are not necessarily related to PM mass concentrations. This implies that PM regulatory strategies should take PM-size fractions smaller than PM(10) into account. Therefore, future research should aim at establishing the relationship between toxicity of these smaller fractions in relation to their specific sources.