Particulate matter (PM) emissions involve a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles suspended in a gas, where it is noted that PM emissions from diesel engines are a major contributor to the ambient air pollution problem. While epidemiological studies have shown a link between increased ambient PM emissions and respiratory morbidity and mortality, studies of this design are not able to identify the PM constituents responsible for driving adverse respiratory health effects. This review explores in detail the physico-chemical properties of diesel PM (DPM) and identifies the constituents of this pollution source that are responsible for the development of respiratory disease. In particular, this review shows that the DPM surface area and adsorbed organic compounds play a significant role in manifesting chemical and cellular processes that if sustained can lead to the development of adverse respiratory health effects. The mechanisms of injury involved included inflammation, innate and acquired immunity, and oxidative stress. Understanding the mechanisms of lung injury from DPM will enhance efforts to protect at-risk individuals from the harmful respiratory effects of air pollutants.