Sixteen polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were screened for their ability to be directly cytotoxic to a cell line from the rainbow trout gill, RTgill-W1. Exposure times of 2 h or less were sufficient for direct cytotoxicity to be detected, which appeared to be caused by a common mechanism, the general perturbation of membranes. This was judged by the similarity of results obtained for three fluorescent indicator dyes, alamar Blue, 5-carboxyfluorescein diacetate acetoxymethyl ester (CFDA-AM) and neutral red. Among the 16 PAHs tested, just two- and three-ring PAHs were found to be directly cytotoxic. These were naphthalene approximately = acenaphthylene approximately = acenaphthene > fluorene approximately = phenanthrene. The results suggest that water solubility and lipophilicity are the critical properties determining the direct cytotoxicity of PAHs and that they do so by influencing PAH accumulation in membranes. Only naphthalene was effective at concentrations well below its water solubility limit. Therefore, direct cytotoxicity is likely to be most environmentally relevant only with naphthalene.