Monday, December 19, 2005

Canada's Chemical Valley: Where Have All The Boys Gone?

Resident's of Canada's "Chemical Valley" are worried. For a century, the area inhabited of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Reserve has been almost completely surrounded by Canada's largest concentration of petrochemical manufacturing.
Growing up with smokestacks on the horizon, Ada Lockridge never thought much about the pollution that came out of them.

She never worried about the oil slicks in Talfourd Creek, the acrid odors that wafted in on the shifting winds or even the air-raid siren behind her house whose shrill wail meant "go inside and shut the windows."

Now Lockridge worries all the time.

A budding environmental activist, she recently made a simple but shocking discovery: There are two girls born in her small community for every boy. A sex ratio so out of whack, say scientific experts who helped her reveal the imbalance, almost certainly indicates serious environmental contamination by one or more harmful chemicals.

The question: Which ones? And another, even more pressing question: What else are these pollutants doing to the 850 members of this Chippewa community?
And , as usual in cases of environmental or workplace poisoning, health effects are discovered by the workers and residents far before the "experts" catch on.

In this case, at a community meeting describing the pollution of the area with toxic chemicals, biologist Michael Gilbertson asked a question, "almost as an afterthought
"Had anybody noticed a difference in the number of girls and boys in the community?

At the other end of the line, the Aamjiwnaang and their allies were suddenly abuzz.

"All of a sudden everybody in that room started talking," said Margaret Keith, a staffer for the Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers, a public health agency.

Somebody pointed out that the reserve had fielded three girls' baseball teams in a recent year and only one boys' team. Lockridge thought about herself and her two sisters, with eight daughters among them and only one son.

The question was not as offhand as it seemed. "I had been interested in sex ratio as an indicator - a very sensitive indicator of effects going on as a result of exposure to chemicals," Gilbertson said in a recent interview.

Gilbertson explained that certain pollutants, including many found on the Aamjiwnaang reserve, could interfere with the sex ratio of newborns in a population. Heavy metals have been shown to affect sex ratio by causing the miscarriage of male fetuses. Other pollutants known as endocrine disrupters - including dioxin and PCBs - can wreak all sorts of havoc by interfering with the hormones that determine whether a couple will have a boy or a girl.

If some pollutant was skewing the distribution of girls and boys in her family and her community, Ada Lockridge thought, what else could it be doing?

Statistics indicate that one in four Aamjiwnaang children has behavioral or learning disabilities, and that they suffer from asthma at nearly three times the national rate. Four of 10 women on the reserve have had at least one miscarriage or stillbirth.
And what chemicals are to blame. Experts think the problem is a group of chemical called "endocrine disruptors"
Dozens of synthetic organic chemicals can interfere with natural hormones by either interfering with or amplifying their effects. Because hormones are so important to the development and healthy performance of the body's organs, endocrine disrupters have the potential to cause a wide range of effects, from damage to the brain and sex organs in utero to decreased sperm production and immune suppression in adults. It is even arguable that they could influence sexual behavior and violence.

In her book "Our Stolen Future," biologist Theo Colborne worries that endocrine disrupters may be responsible for "physical, mental and behavioral disruption in humans that could affect fertility, learning ability, aggression and conceivably even parenting and mating behavior."

Some researchers have suggested that endocrine disrupters may be responsible for numerous alarming trends - rising rates of testicular and breast cancer, a higher frequency of reproductive tract abnormalities, declining sperm counts and increases in learning disabilities among them.
The Aamjiwnaang are organizing against further pollution. They've already forced an ethanol plant planned for the area to be built ten miles away and are considering using their veto power over new pipelines crossing the reserve as a bargaining chip -- to raise money to study the health problems and clean up their community.

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