Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are environmental pollutants, and many are potent carcinogens. Benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P), one of the best-studied PAHs, is metabolized ultimately to the genotoxin anti-B[a]P-7,8-dihydrodiol-9,10-epoxide (BPDE). BPDE triggers stress responses linked to gene expression, cell death and survival. So far, the underlying mechanisms that initiate these signal transduction cascades are unknown. Here we show that BPDE-induced DNA damage is recognized by DNA damage sensor proteins to induce activation of the stress-activated protein kinase (SAPK) p38. Surprisingly, the classical DNA damage response, which involves the kinases ATM and ATR, is not involved in p38-SAPK activation by BPDE. Moreover, the induction of p38-SAPK phosphorylation also occurs in the absence of DNA strand breaks. Instead, increased phosphorylation of p38-SAPK requires the nucleotide excision repair (NER) and DNA damage sensor proteins XPC and mHR23B. Interestingly, other genotoxins such as cisplatin (CDDP), hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet radiation also enhance XPC-dependent p38-SAPK phosphorylation. In contrast, anti-benzo[c]phenanthrene-3,4-dihydrodiol-1,2-epoxide, the DNA adducts of which are not properly recognized by NER, does not trigger p38-SAPK activation. As a downstream consequence, expression and secretion of the pro-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-6 is induced by BPDE and CDDP in vitro and by CDDP in the murine lung, and depends on XPC. In conclusion, we describe a novel pathway in which DNA damage recognition by NER proteins specifically leads to activation of p38-SAPK to promote inflammatory gene expression.