Naphthalene produces species and cell selective injury to respiratory tract epithelial cells of rodents. In these studies we determined the apparent Km, Vmax, and catalytic efficiency (Vmax/Km) for naphthalene metabolism in microsomal preparations from subcompartments of the respiratory tract of rodents and non-human primates. In tissues with high substrate turnover, major metabolites were derived directly from naphthalene oxide with smaller amounts from conjugates of diol epoxide, diepoxide, and 1,2- and 1,4-naphthoquinones. In some tissues, different enzymes with dissimilar Km and Vmax appeared to metabolize naphthalene. The rank order of Vmax (rat olfactory epithelium > mouse olfactory epithelium > murine airways ≫ rat airways) correlated well with tissue susceptibility to naphthalene. The Vmax in monkey alveolar subcompartment was 2% that in rat nasal olfactory epithelium. Rates of metabolism in nasal compartments of the monkey were low. The catalytic efficiencies of microsomes from known susceptible tissues/subcompartments are 10 and 250 fold higher than in rat airway and monkey alveolar subcompartments, respectively. Although the strong correlations between catalytic efficiencies and tissue susceptibility suggest that non-human primate tissues are unlikely to generate metabolites at a rate sufficient to produce cellular injury, other studies showing high levels of formation of protein adducts support the need for additional studies.