Fiber length has been implicated as a determinant of fiber toxicity. Fibers of narrowly defined length can be generated by dielectrophoretic classifiers. Since the quantities of fibers produced are very small, we developed a rat alveolar macrophage microculture system to study the toxicity of these samples. The objective of this study was to examine the role of fiber length on the cytotoxicity of Manville code 100 (JM-100) fibers. Rat alveolar macrophages were cultured with 0-500 mug/ml of 5 lengths of JM-100 fibers on 96-well plates. After 18 h, well supernatants were removed and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) activity was measured to assess cell damage. Chemiluminescence (CL), an assessment of macrophage function, was measured by adding lucigenin with or without zymosan, a particulate stimulus, to appropriate wells. For each fiber length the effects were concentration dependent: CL declined and LDH rose with increasing fiber concentration. Comparing the effects of different lengths showed the greatest toxicity from a relatively long fiber sample (mean length = 17 mum). Microscopic examination of the interaction of fibers with macrophages revealed multiple macrophages attached along the length of the long fibers. This suggests that frustrated, or incomplete, phagocytosis may be a factor in the increased toxicity of longer fibers. Overall the results demonstrate that length is an important determinant of toxicity for JM-100 fibers.