The increasing use of nanomaterials in consumer products highlights the importance of understanding their potential toxic effects. We evaluated cytotoxic and genotoxic/oxidative effects induced by commercial multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) on human lung epithelial (A549) cells treated with 5, 10, 40 and 100 µg ml−1 for different exposure times. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) analysis, MTT [3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyl tetrazolium bromide] and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) assays were performed to evaluate cytotoxicity. Fpg-modified comet assay was used to evaluate direct-oxidative DNA damage. LDH leakage was detected after 2, 4 and 24 h of exposure and viability reduction was revealed after 24 h. SEM analysis, performed after 4 and 24 h exposure, showed cell surface changes such as lower microvilli density, microvilli structure modifications and the presence of holes in plasma membrane. We found an induction of direct DNA damage after each exposure time and at all concentrations, statistically significant at 10 and 40 µg ml−1 after 2 h, at 5, 10, 100 µg ml−1 after 4 h and at 10 µg ml−1 after 24 h exposure. However, oxidative DNA damage was not found. The results showed an induction of early cytotoxic effects such as loss of membrane integrity, surface morphological changes and MWCNT agglomerate entrance at all concentrations. We also demonstrated the ability of MWCNTs to induce early genotoxicity. This study emphasizes the suitability of our approach to evaluating simultaneously the early response of the cell membrane and DNA to different MWCNT concentrations and exposure times in cells of target organ. The findings contribute to elucidation of the mechanism by which MWCNTs cause toxic effects in an in vitro experimental model. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.