Open Access Research

Permitted water pollution discharges and population cancer and non-cancer mortality: toxicity weights and upstream discharge effects in US rural-urban areas

Michael Hendryx124*, Jamison Conley13, Evan Fedorko13, Juhua Luo12 and Matthew Armistead1

Author Affiliations

1 West Virginia Rural Health Research Center, West Virginia University, Morgantown, USA

2 Department of Community Medicine, West Virginia University, Morgantown, USA

3 Department of Geology and Geography, West Virginia University, Morgantown, USA

4 Department of Community Medicine, West Virginia University, PO Box 9190, Morgantown, WV 26505, USA

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International Journal of Health Geographics 2012, 11:9  doi:10.1186/1476-072X-11-9

Published: 2 April 2012



The study conducts statistical and spatial analyses to investigate amounts and types of permitted surface water pollution discharges in relation to population mortality rates for cancer and non-cancer causes nationwide and by urban-rural setting. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Discharge Monitoring Report (DMR) were used to measure the location, type, and quantity of a selected set of 38 discharge chemicals for 10,395 facilities across the contiguous US. Exposures were refined by weighting amounts of chemical discharges by their estimated toxicity to human health, and by estimating the discharges that occur not only in a local county, but area-weighted discharges occurring upstream in the same watershed. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mortality files were used to measure age-adjusted population mortality rates for cancer, kidney disease, and total non-cancer causes. Analysis included multiple linear regressions to adjust for population health risk covariates. Spatial analyses were conducted by applying geographically weighted regression to examine the geographic relationships between releases and mortality.


Greater non-carcinogenic chemical discharge quantities were associated with significantly higher non-cancer mortality rates, regardless of toxicity weighting or upstream discharge weighting. Cancer mortality was higher in association with carcinogenic discharges only after applying toxicity weights. Kidney disease mortality was related to higher non-carcinogenic discharges only when both applying toxicity weights and including upstream discharges. Effects for kidney mortality and total non-cancer mortality were stronger in rural areas than urban areas. Spatial results show correlations between non-carcinogenic discharges and cancer mortality for much of the contiguous United States, suggesting that chemicals not currently recognized as carcinogens may contribute to cancer mortality risk. The geographically weighted regression results suggest spatial variability in effects, and also indicate that some rural communities may be impacted by upstream urban discharges.


There is evidence that permitted surface water chemical discharges are related to population mortality. Toxicity weights and upstream discharges are important for understanding some mortality effects. Chemicals not currently recognized as carcinogens may nevertheless play a role in contributing to cancer mortality risk. Spatial models allow for the examination of geographic variability not captured through the regression models.

Age-adjusted mortality; Spatial analysis; Water pollution; Cancer; Kidney disease; Rural-urban differences