Organophosphorus (OP) pesticides are known to induce pulmonary toxicity in both humans and experimental animals. To elucidate the mechanism of OP-induced cytotoxicity, we examined the effects of parathion and malathion and their respective metabolites, paraoxon and malaoxon, on primary cultured human large and small airway cells. Exposure to paraoxon and malaoxon produced a dose-dependent increase in cytotoxicity following a 24-hour exposure, while treatment with parathion or malathion produced no effects at clinically relevant concentrations. Exposure to paraoxon-induced caspase activation, but malaoxon failed to induce this response. Since caspases have a major role in the regulation of apoptosis and cell death, we evaluated OP-induced cell death in the presence of a caspase inhibitor. Pharmacological caspase inhibition protected against paraoxon-induced cell death but not malaoxon-induced cell death. These data suggest that caspase activation is a key signaling element in paraoxon-induced cell death, but not malaoxon-induced cellular death in the pulmonary epithelium.