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Are male mathematicians at an elevated risk of having children with birth defects? That appears to one of the conclusions of a study that investigated the links between a father's occupation and congenital abnormalities in his offspring.

The researchers, led by Tania Desrosiers of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, reviewed the job histories of about 10,000 U.S. fathers of children with one or more birth defects. This data was compared to 4,000 dads whose kids were free of such problems.

Their analysis, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, suggests some professions are associated with an elevated risk. They include: mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists; artists; photographers and photo processors; food service workers; landscapers and groundsmen; hairdressers and make-up artists; office and admin support workers; sawmill operators; those working with petrol and gas; those working in chemical industries; printers; those operating cranes and diggers; and drivers.

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Dr. Desrosiers acknowledged that some of the jobs on the list may seem surprising. A commonly accepted hypothesis is that certain birth defects may arise from exposure to noxious chemicals at work or environmental triggers. That situation wouldn't necessarily apply to mathematicians, physicists or computer scientists.

But she said there may be some other aspect of these relatively sedentary jobs that could boost the odds of birth defects. "Sitting at a desk for lengthy periods of time might increase the temperature of the scrotum, which could potentially damage the sperm," she speculated. "Or, the association may be due to other unmeasured factors among men in these occupations, perhaps diet or lifestyle factors that contribute to the risk of certain birth defects."

More research needs to be done to confirm the findings. However, the results suggest fathers may play a more significant role in a child's health than generally thought. "The focus of preconception health has traditionally been on the mother," she noted. "We could stand to pay more attention to risk factors among dads who are trying to conceive."

Still, it must be kept in mind that birth defects are relatively rare in the general population. So even if some professions carry a higher risk, the chance of any individual having a child with congenital abnormalities is small.

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