Abstract Nickel, zinc, and copper oxide nanoparticles (NiONP, ZnONP, and CuONP) and their aqueous extracts (AEs) were applied to A549 lung epithelial cells to determine the cytotoxicity, IL-8 production, and activation of transcription factors. Nanoparticles (NPs) and their AEs were also instilled into rat lungs to evaluate acute and chronic inflammatory effects. In vitro AEs had specific effects; for example NiOAE had no effect and ZnOAE affected all parameters measured. NPs themselves all had cytotoxic effects but only ZnONP and CuONP impacted pro-inflammatory endpoints. The inflammatory cells in the BAL were also different from AEs and NPs with ZnONP and CuONP recruiting eosinophils and neutrophils whilst ZnOAE and CuOAE elicited only mild neutrophilic inflammation that had resolved by four weeks. NiONP recruited neutrophils only whilst NiOAE did not cause any inflammation. Understanding differences in the toxic role of the ionic components of metal oxide NPs will contribute to full hazard identification and characterisation.