Large amounts of pollutants reach polar regions, particularly the Arctic, impacting their communities. In this study we analyzed the toxic levels of Hg, Cd and Pb to natural phytoplankton communities of the Arctic and Southern Oceans, and compared their sensitivities with those observed on phytoplankton natural communities from temperate areas. Mercury was the most toxic metal for both Arctic and Antarctic communities, while both Cd and Pb were toxic only for the Antarctic phytoplankton. Total cell abundance of the populations forming the Arctic community increased under high Cd and Pb concentrations, probably due to a decrease of the grazing pressure or the increase of the most resistant species, although analysis of individual cells indicated that cell death was already induced at the highest levels. These results suggest that phytoplankton may have acquired adapting mechanisms to face high levels of Pb and Cd in the Arctic Ocean. © 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.