We present a new statistical model for linking spatial variation in ambient air pollution to mortality. The model incorporates risk factors measured at the individual level, such as smoking, and at the spatial level, such as air pollution. We demonstrate that the spatial autocorrelation in community mortality rates, an indication of not fully characterizing potentially confounding risk factors to the air pollution-mortality association, can be accounted for through the inclusion of location in the model assessing the effects of air pollution on mortality. Our methods are illustrated with an analysis of the American Cancer Society cohort to determine whether all cause mortality is associated with concentrations of sulfate particles. The relative risk associated with a 4.2 microg/m(3) interquartile range of sulfate distribution for all causes of death was 1.051 (95% confidence interval 1.036-1.066) based on the Cox proportional hazards survival model, assuming subjects were statistically independent. Inclusion of community-based random effects yielded a relative risk of 1.055 (1.033, 1.077), which represented a doubling in the residual variance compared to that estimated by the Cox model. Residuals from the random-effects model displayed strong evidence of spatial autocorrelation (p = 0.0052). Further inclusion of a location surface reduced the sulfate relative risk and the evidence for autocorrelation as the complexity of the location surface increased, with a range in relative risks of 1.055-1.035. We conclude that these data display both extravariation and spatial autocorrelation, characteristics not captured by the Cox survival model. Failure to account for extravariation and spatial autocorrelation can lead to an understatement of the uncertainty of the air pollution association with mortality.