By use of the postcoded database held by the Small Area Health Statistic Unit, cancer incidence of over 14 million people living near 72 municipal solid waste incinerators in Great Britain was examined from 1974-86 (England), 1974-84 (Wales) and 1975-87 (Scotland). Numbers of observed cases were compared with expected numbers calculated from national rates (regionally adjusted) after stratification by a deprivation index based on 1981 census small area statistics. Observed-expected ratios were tested for decline in risk with distance up to 7.5 km. The study was conducted in two stages: the first involved a stratified random sample of 20 incinerators; the second the remaining 52 incinerators. Over the two stages of the study was a statistically significant (P<0.05) decline in risk with distance from incinerators for all cancers combined, stomach, colorectal, liver and lung cancer. Among these cancers in the second stage, the excess from 0 to 1 km ranged from 37% for liver cancer (0.95) excess cases 10(-5) per year to 5% for colorectal cancer. There was evidence of residual confounding near the incinerators, which seems to be a likely explanation of the finding for all cancers, stomach and lung, and also to explain at least part of the excess of liver cancer. For this reason and because of a substantial level of misdiagnosis (mainly secondary tumours) found among registrations and death certificates for liver cancer, further investigation, including histological review of the cases, is to be done to help determine whether or not there is an increase in primary liver cancer in the vicinity of incinerators.