Abstract Long range atmospheric transport and deposition is a significant introduction pathway of organic pollutants to remote oceanic regions, leading to their subsequent accumulation in marine organisms. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) bioconcentrate in planktonic food webs and these exert a biogeochemical control on the regional and global cycling of POPs. Therefore, an important issue is to determine whether the anthropogenic chemical perturbation of the biosphere introduced by the myriad of organic pollutants present in seawater influences phytoplankton abundance and productivity. The results reported here from five sets of experiments performed in the NE Atlantic Ocean show that there is a toxic effect induced by trace levels of complex mixtures of organic pollutants on phytoplankton oceanic communities. The levels of single pollutant, such as phenanthrene and pyrene, at which lethality of phytoplankton is observed are high in comparison to field levels. Complex mixtures of organic pollutants, however, have an important toxic effect on phytoplankton abundances, viability and concentrations of Chlorophyll a at pollutant concentrations 20–40 folds those found in the open ocean. The toxicity of these complex mixtures of organic pollutants exceeds by 10 3 times the toxicity expected for a single pollutant. Therefore, our results point out the need for a systematic investigation of the influence of complex mixtures of organic hydrophobic pollutants to oceanic phytoplankton communities, a perturbation not accounted for on previous assessments of anthropogenic pressures in the marine environment.