Brain cancer incidence rates and the presence of nuclear reactors in US states: a hypothesis-generating study

Mark R. Williamson, Marilyn G. Klug, Gary G. Schwartz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: The etiology of brain cancer is poorly understood. The only confirmed environmental risk factor is exposure to ionizing radiation. Because nuclear reactors emit ionizing radiation, we examined brain cancer incidence rates in the USA in relation to the presence of nuclear reactors per state. Methods: Data on brain cancer incidence rates per state for Whites by sex for three age groups (all ages, 50 and older, and under 50) were obtained from cancer registries. The location, number, and type of nuclear reactor, i.e., power or research reactor, was obtained from public sources. We examined the association between these variables using multivariate linear regression and ANOVA. Results: Brain cancer incidence rates were not associated with the number of nuclear power reactors. Conversely, incidence rates per state increased with the number of nuclear research reactors. This was significant for both sexes combined and for males in the ‘all ages’ category (β = 0.08, p = 0.0319 and β = 0.12, p = 0.0277, respectively), and for both sexes combined in the’50 and older’ category (β = 0.18, p = 0.0163). Brain cancer incidence rates for counties with research reactors were significantly higher than the corresponding rates for their states overall (p = 0.0140). These findings were not explicable by known confounders. Conclusions: Brain cancer incidence rates are positively associated with the number of nuclear research reactors per state. These findings merit further exploration and suggest new opportunities for research in brain cancer epidemiology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3967-3975
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Geochemistry and Health
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • Brain and CNS cancer
  • Cancer incidence
  • Epidemiology
  • Nuclear reactors
  • Radiation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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