Background In vitro studies with monocultures of human alveolar cells shed deeper knowledge on the cellular mechanisms by which particulate matter (PM) causes toxicity, but cannot account for mitigating or aggravating effects of cell-cell interactions on PM toxicity. Methods We assessed inflammation, oxidative stress as well as cytotoxic and genotoxic effects induced by PM from the combustion of different types of wood logs and softwood pellets in three cell culture setups: two monocultures of either human macrophage-like cells or human alveolar epithelial cells, and a co-culture of these two cell lines. The adverse effects of the PM samples were compared between these setups. Results We detected clear differences in the endpoints between the mono-and co-cultures. Inflammatory responses were more diverse in the macrophage monoculture and the co-culture compared to the epithelial cells where only an increase of IL-8 was detected. The production of reactive oxygen species was the highest in epithelial cells and macrophages seemed to have protective effects against oxidative stress from the PM samples. With no metabolically active cells at the highest doses, the cytotoxic effects of the PM samples from the wood log combustion were far more pronounced in the macrophages and the co-culture than in the epithelial cells. All samples caused DNA damage in macrophages, whereas only beech and spruce log combustion samples caused DNA damage in epithelial cells. The organic content of the samples was mainly associated with cytotoxicity and DNA damage, while the metal content of the samples correlated with the induction of inflammatory responses. Conclusions All of the tested PM samples induce adverse effects and the chemical composition of the samples determines which pathway of toxicity is induced. In vitro testing of the toxicity of combustion-derived PM in monocultures of one cell line, however, is inadequate to account for all the possible pathways of toxicity.