Over the past 30 years joint replacement prostheses have been developed and refined to enhance durability and reproducibility. Total hip joint arthroplasty is being performed in an increasing number of younger patients; therefore orthopaedic surgeons seek implants with a longer life span. With regards to the progress of mechanical behaviour of the biomaterials used in an arthroplasty, little is known about the long-term biological effects of wear debris. Owing to the composition of the prostheses currently in use, systemic exposure to chromium (Cr), cobalt (Co), nickel (Ni) and aluminium (Al) alloys occurs as a result of the formation of metal wear nano-particles that are released both from metal-on-metal and polyethylene-on-metal bearings, resulting in a postoperative increase in metal ion levels at different organ sites. These particles circulate both locally and systemically, penetrate cell plasma membranes, bind to cellular proteins and enzymes and modulate cytokine expression. Their physiologic effects are poorly understood and their potential toxicity, hypersensitivity and carcinogenicity remain a cause for concern. In this article we will address the issue of whether these nanoscale degradation products are associated with adverse, clinically significant local or systemic toxicologic sequelae. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.