Inhaled nanoparticles have been reported in some instances to translocate from the nostril to the olfactory bulb in exposed rats. In close proximity to the olfactory bulb is the olfactory mucosa, within which resides a niche of multipotent cells. Cells isolated from this area may provide a relevant in vitro system to investigate potential effects of workplace exposure to inhaled zinc oxide nanoparticles. Four types of commercially-available zinc oxide (ZnO) nanoparticles, two coated and two uncoated, were examined for their effects on primary human cells cultured from the olfactory mucosa. Human olfactory neurosphere-derived (hONS) cells from healthy adult donors were analyzed for modulation of cytokine levels, activation of intracellular signalling pathways, changes in gene-expression patterns across the whole genome, and compromised cellular function over a 24 h period following exposure to the nanoparticles suspended in cell culture medium. ZnO nanoparticle toxicity in hONS cells was mediated through a battery of mechanisms largely related to cell stress, inflammatory response and apoptosis, but not activation of mechanisms that repair damaged DNA. Surface coatings on the ZnO nanoparticles mitigated these cellular responses to varying degrees. The results indicate that care should be taken in the workplace to minimize generation of, and exposure to, aerosols of uncoated ZnO nanoparticles, given the adverse responses reported here using multipotent cells derived from the olfactory mucosa.