Environmental mixtures of nanomaterials and chemicals: The Trojan-horse phenomenon and its relevance for ecotoxicity

Sci Total Environ. 2018 Sep 1:635:1170-1181. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.04.180. Epub 2018 Apr 24.


The usage of engineered nanomaterials (NM) offers many novel products and applications with advanced features, but at the same time raises concerns with regard to potential adverse biological effects. Upon release and emission, NM may interact with chemicals in the environment, potentially leading to a co-exposure of organisms and the occurrence of mixture effects. A prominent idea is that NM may act as carriers of chemicals, facilitating and enhancing the entry of substances into cells or organisms, subsequently leading to an increased toxicity. In the literature, the term 'Trojan-horse effect' describes this hypothesis. The relevance of this mechanism for organisms is, however, unclear as yet. Here, a review has been performed to provide a more systematic picture on existing evidence. It includes 151 experimental studies investigating the exposure of various NM and chemical mixtures in ecotoxicological in vitro and in vivo model systems. The papers retrieved comprised studies investigating (i) uptake, (ii) toxicity and (iii) investigations considering both, changes in substance uptake and toxicity upon joint exposure of a chemical with an NM. A closer inspection of the studies demonstrated that the existing evidence for interference of NM-chemical mixture exposure with uptake and toxicity points into different directions compared to the original Trojan-horse hypothesis. We could discriminate at least 7 different categories to capture the evidence ranging from no changes in uptake and toxicity to an increase in uptake and toxicity upon mixture exposure. Concluding recommendations for the consideration of relevant processes are given, including a proposal for a nomenclature to describe NM-chemical mixture interactions in consistent terms.

Keywords: Bioconcentration; Co-exposure; Combined effect; Mixture toxicity; Nanoparticle; Pollutants; Trojan horse.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Ecotoxicology
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Environmental Pollutants / chemistry
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Nanostructures / chemistry
  • Nanostructures / toxicity*


  • Environmental Pollutants