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OBJECTIVES: To test the "Gardner hypothesis" that childhood leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma can be caused by fathers' exposure to ionising radiation before the conception of the child, and, more generally, to investigate whether such radiation exposure of either parent is a cause of childhood cancer. DESIGN: Case-control study. SETTING: Great Britain. SUBJECTS: 35,949 children diagnosed as having cancer, together with matched controls. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Parental employment as radiation worker as defined by inclusion in the National Registry for Radiation Workers and being monitored for external radiation before conception of child; cumulative dose of external ionising radiation for various periods of employment before conception; dose during pregnancy. RESULTS: After cases studied by Gardner and colleagues were excluded, fathers of children with leukaemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma were significantly more likely than fathers of controls to have been radiation workers (relative risk 1.77, 95% confidence interval 1.05 to 3.03) but there was no dose-response relation for any of the exposure periods studied; indeed, the association was greatest for those with doses below the level of detection. No increased risk was found for fathers with a lifetime preconception dose of 100 mSv or more, or with a dose in the 6 months before conception of 10 mSv or more. There was no increased risk for the group of other childhood cancers. Mothers' radiation work was associated with a significant increase of childhood cancer (relative risk 5.00, 1.42 to 26.94; based on 15 cases and 3 controls). Only four of the case mothers and no controls were radiation workers during pregnancy. CONCLUSIONS: These results do not support the hypothesis that paternal preconception irradiation is a cause of childhood leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma; the observed associations may be chance findings or results from exposure to infective or other agents. If there is any increased risk for the children of fathers who are radiation workers, it is small in absolute terms: in Britain the average risk by age 15 years is 6.5 per 10,000; our best estimate, using all available data, is that the increase is 5.4 per 10,000. For mothers, the numbers are too small for reliable estimates of the risk, if any, to be made.