Sunday, May 07, 2006

Where have all the boys gone?

What happens when you are surrounded by Canada’s largest concentration of petrochemical factories? You start losing your male children. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation has learned this fact the hard way.

The Aamjiwnaang First Nation (a community of Chippewas), population of 850, is a small reserve covering 3,250 acres along an area near Sarnia, southwestern Ontario just across the border from Port Huron, Michigan. It lies within an area commonly referred to as “Chemical Valley” one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical manufacturing in Canada along with one of the largest hazardous waste dumps in the country.

Over the years, the community had learned to live with the acrid smells, the smokestacks, the oil slicks and the air-raid siren that would scream out its warning whenever the wind shifted in the wrong direction, cautioning everyone that the air quality was so bad they should head indoors and shut all the windows. They knew they lived in a contaminated area, but when Suncor Energy announced in 2003 that they wanted to build an ethanol plant on land adjoining the First Nation, the Band decided they had had enough.

The Band commissioned a biologist, Michael Gilbertson, to study the amounts of air, water and soil contamination that already existed on the reserve. When Gilbertson finished his study he reported back to the Band that there were already elevated levels of PCBs, pesticides and heavy metals in the Band’s community. During that phone call with the Band, Gilbertson unexpectedly asked the Band members if girls outnumbered the boys in their community. It was that question that opened up the floodgates.

There was a definite skew in the ratio of boys born to girls. The Band had four baseball teams for their children – three teams of girls and one team of boys. When families got together, the girls usually outnumbered the boys by a wide margin. Since 1999, only a third of the babies born on the reserve were male. There was definitely something going on here.

A full scale investigation into the birth trends over the last 20 years of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation was launched. Everyone got into the act; the Band itself, the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, scientific professionals, students. The end result was startling.

Proportion of Live Male Births:

1984 – 1988 54%
1989 – 1993 55%
1993 – 1998 45%
1999 – 2003 35%

The normal ratio (pretty much a worldwide ratio) is 105 boys born for every 100 girls. Male fetuses and male babies are more vulnerable than females and die at a higher rate, especially in the very early weeks and months of life. The higher birth rate is compensated by the higher death rate, resulting in a fairly even balance of girls and boys.

The scientific community has long known that certain chemicals can affect the birth ratio in different ways. For example, exposure to dioxin, PCB’s or methylmercury have been known to reduce the sex ratio (fewer boys). Communities exposed to petrochemical air pollution tend to have fewer girls. There have been numerous studies of the effects of a single chemical exposure (usually resulting from real life accidents such as the one in Seveso, Italy when a broken valve at a chemical plant released a dioxin-laden cloud over the Seveso municipality). Efforts are now being made to study the long term effects of these pollutants. What is still unknown is the problem facing the Aamjiwnaang First Nation – what happens when you are exposed to numerous and constantly varying combinations of chemicals AND over a long period time, perhaps even an entire lifetime. To add to the problem, it is now being recognized that differing effects occur depending on which parent is exposed to the chemicals.

The Aamjiwnaang are getting increasingly worried and obsessed about the pollution of their reserve. With every new baby, said Ron Plain, a member of the Aamjiwnaang environment committee, "we have to worry what's the matter with that child, five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now

It’s a sad story with no easy or quick solutions. And humans are not the only victims. In Lake St. Clair. 30 miles from the reserve, intersex fish have been documented (fish with both male and female gonads). On the reserve itself, puppies have been born with paws that resemble flippers. No one doubts that these abnormalities are human-caused. To determine precisely what is happening will take generations to study. Our headlong rush into technology has created problems of such complexity that we may never be able to unravel or undo the damage. And I fear that we’re not capable of learning our lessons from it. Mother Nature’s power will always exceed ours.

As for that proposed Suncor ethanol plant? In April 2005, Suncor Energy Products Inc. announced that they had received government approval to build their new ethanol plant in Chemical Valley scheduled for completion in the summer of 2006. The only concession to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation is that the facility is being built about ten miles south of the reserve. Small comfort. (In the meantime, Suncor has watched its profits soar to ten times its previous year’s profits.)

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