Polarized light microscopy has been used for more than forty years to identify polyethylene particles in histological specimens; however, few investigators have assessed the specificity of this technique. We examined specimens from dissected lymph nodes for the presence of strongly birefringent particles resembling polyethylene. Twenty-seven patients had dissection of lymph nodes after a total joint replacement (Group 1), and a control group of eighteen patients had dissection of lymph nodes before a total joint replacement (Group 2). Specimens from both groups of lymph nodes were examined under plain and polarized light. The presence of strongly birefringent particulate debris was graded from 0 to 4. Twenty-one (78 per cent) of the twenty-seven patients in Group 1 and eight of the eighteen patients in Group 2 had strongly birefringent particles in the lymph nodes.Our results demonstrate that, in the assessment of the systemic dissemination of polyethylene in the lymphoreticular system, polarized light microscopy has important limitations. More refined techniques employing polarized light and other methods of physical and chemical analysis may be necessary to identify polyethylene particles accurately within the lymphoreticular system and periprosthetic tissue.