We conducted an ecological analysis of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia-incidence data from children ⩽5 years old during 1992–1998 from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program in 200 counties and Hawaii. The response variable was the count of cases in each county race–sex stratum, examined in relation to data from the United States Census and the United States Department of Agriculture. The final models for both sexes included race, proportion moved during 1985–1990, and proportion of households with income ⩾$5000 as potential predictors. Incidence was lower among black boys (rate ratio (RR)=0.5) and black girls (RR=0.4) than among other children of the same sex; no other significant racial differences were detected. Incidence was elevated among males (but not females) residing in counties where ⩾50% of the population relocated (RR=1.5) and among females (but not males) residing in counties where <6% of the households had incomes <$5000 (RR=1.5). These sex differences in risk factors were unexpected.