Elevated serum phosphorus is a predictable accompaniment of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) in the absence of dietary phosphate restriction or supplemental phosphate binders. The consequences of hyperphosphatemia include the development and progression of secondary hyperparathyroidism and a predisposition to metastatic calcification when the product of serum calcium and phosphorus (Ca x PO4) is elevated. Both of these conditions may contribute to the substantial morbidity and mortality seen in patients with ESRD. We have analyzed the distribution of serum phosphorus in two large national, random, cross-sectional samples of hemodialysis patients who have been receiving dialysis for at least 1 year. Data were obtained from two special studies of the United States Renal Data System, the Case Mix Adequacy Study (1990) and the Dialysis Morbidity and Mortality Study Wave 1 (1993). The relative risk of death by serum phosphorus quintiles is described after adjusting for age at onset of ESRD, race, sex, smoking status, and the presence of diabetes, the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, and/or neoplasm. Logistic regression analysis is then used to describe the demographic, comorbid, and laboratory parameters associated with high serum phosphorus. Serum phosphorus was similar in these two study populations and averaged 6.2 mg/dL. Ten percent of patients had levels greater than 9 mg/dL and at least 30% of each group had serum phosphorus levels greater than 7 mg/dL. The adjusted relative risk of death by serum phosphorus level was not uniform across all quintiles, being constant below a level of 6.5 mg/dL and increasing significantly above this level. The relative risk of death for those with a serum phosphorus greater than 6.5 mg/dL was 1.27 relative to those with a serum phosphorus of 2.4 to 6.5 mg/dL. This increased risk was not diminished by statistical adjustment for coexisting medical conditions, delivered dose of dialysis, nutritional parameters, or markers of noncompliance. Evaluation of predictors of serum phosphorus greater than 6.5 mg/dL revealed in multivariate analysis that younger age at onset of ESRD, female sex, white race, diabetes, active smoking, and higher serum creatinine levels were all significant predictors. Analysis of serum calcium revealed no correlation with relative risk of death. The Ca x PO4 product, however, showed a mortality risk trend similar to that seen with serum phosphorus alone. Those in the highest quintile of the Ca x PO4 product (>72 mg2/dL2) had a relative mortality risk of 1.34 relative to those with products of 42 to 52 mg2/dL2. The relative mortality risk by log parathyroid hormone (PTH) level was elevated for patients with higher levels, but the mortality risk associated with hyperphosphatemia was independent of PTH. For hemodialysis patients who have been receiving dialysis for at least 1 year, we conclude that a large percentage have a serum phosphorus level above 6.5 mg/dL and that this places them at increased risk of death. This increased risk is independent of PTH. The mechanism(s) responsible for death is unknown, but may be related to an abnormally high Ca x PO4 product. Although mechanisms are not clearly established, this study supports the need for vigorous control of hyperphosphatemia to improve patient survival.