By Terri C. Hansen
Environment and Science Reporter
In indigenous communities, babies that should be born boys are being born girls. Research released this month of only girls being born in the villages of northern Greenland has brought to light earlier studies that found indigenous mothers living in the northern most reaches of the Arctic Circle are having girls – but not boys. The studies linked the skewed sex ratios with human exposures to PCBs and other persistent organic chemicals.
The Indigenous Peoples Organization initiated the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program project in 2004, following a report that some Arctic indigenous communities are among the most exposed populations to persistent toxic substances.
The AMAP report concluded, “Any threat to continued consumption of their foods, including chemical contamination, is not only a potential threat to the health of the individual, but also to the social structures and entire cultural identity of these indigenous peoples.”
Toxic pollutants travel from industrialized countries and accumulate in the marine food chain of the Arctic region, and in the traditional diet of indigenous peoples. Blood levels of such pollutants as PCBs and mercury were several times higher in residents of Arctic Canada and Greenland than measured in residents of industrialized areas of North America.
Perhaps an even darker legacy of the industrial contamination is what has happened to the baby boys in Canada on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, an Aanishinaabek community.
Normally about 106 boys are born for every 100 girls – it’s nature’s way of compensating for males more likely to perish through hunting and conflicts. For years, scientists have been reporting declines in male births worldwide. But the most startling is the sharp drop of boys among the Aanishinaabek of Aamjiwnaang, “a greater rate of change than has been reported previously anywhere,” noted a 2005 study that was published in the prestigious journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
It’s the kind of attention the 850 members of their community never wanted. They could not even conceive what was happening, least of all in their tiny community. Their pain and their questions began five years ago, when the biologist Michael Gilbertson, upon finding elevated levels of PCBs, pesticides and heavy metals on the reserve asked if they had more girls than boys.
Tribal members were first baffled, and then aghast following the realization that yes, they had enough girls for three baseball teams, but not enough boys for even one team. They began to take pay attention. Their anger soon turned to action.
An accidental catalyst release from the Imperial Oil facility in 2002 had prompted Imperial Oil to sample their homes. Then they cleaned tribal homes inside and out. They even cleaned the cars inside and out. Don’t worry, they told tribal member Ron Plain while stirring up dust as they cleaned. “The dust won’t hurt you.”
But Plain did worry, asking incredulously, “If it’s harmful to our houses and cars, what’s it doing to our lungs and our bodies?” Plain and other tribal members began organizing their own environmental investigative committee, a grassroots effort. Meanwhile Imperial Oil offered $300 to each homeowner if they agreed to waive any damages and legal counsel, and many accepted their offer. Last year the company paid $125,000 in fines.
The Aamjiwnaang environmental investigation team uncovered studies done of their lands years before. One scientific report by the University of Windsor in 1986, showed that mercury, a neurotoxin, was present on their reserve at a 100 times greater amount than the Severe Effect Level, set by the Canadian government.
Soon after Sun Oil – now Suncor – announced they planned to build the largest ethanol plant in Canada across the street from the tribal community. Plain and other members of the tribal environmental committee, angry and fed up, closed their roads. For six weeks, they cut off access to the proposed site. Sun Oil trucks could not get through.
“We won,” says Plain. “They agreed not to put the plant in. We shut down a multi-million dollar industry.” The battle had begun.
The Aanishinaabek people of the Aamjiwnaang have occupied their lands at the southernmost tip of Lake Huron for thousands of years, long before the discovery of oil and the boom “oil rush.” Their homelands are integral to their social structure and their entire cultural identity. Today their land, at the border between Ontario and Michigan just south of Sarnia, Ontario lies in the shadow of Canada’s largest concentration of petrochemical and manufacturing facilities. It’s been dubbed “Chemical Valley.” Their land adjoins the St. Clair River Area of Concern, so designated because of its long history of air and water pollution.
Two new reports this month are a dramatic indictment of the industry’s impact on the Aamjiwnaang community. “Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley,” identifies 62 facilities in Canada and the U.S. that have made the area Ontario’s worst air pollution hotspot. Particularly striking, says Ecojustice Canada, who commissioned the study, is the staggering amount of toxic pollutants released.
“What is particularly striking about the air pollution in the Sarnia area is the immense quantity of toxic chemicals emitted,” said Ecojustice senior scientist and report author Dr. Elaine McDonald. “There is growing evidence that the health of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation members and the local environment has been severely compromised.”
New findings from researchers at Ontario's IntrAmericas Centre for Environment and Health confirm that more girls than boys are born in some Canadian communities. The cause of the phenomenon is airborne pollutants called dioxins that can alter normal sex ratios, even when the source of the pollution is kilometers away.
Industry spokesmen failed to respond to the Ecojustice Canada report, while the industry-funded Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association initially responded with no comment. Following their period of silence, the association’s Dean Edwardson was quoted as saying, “We want an open and transparent process…something that is scientifically valid, peer-reviewed and is meaningful.” He said industry would help pay for such a study.
But Plain says there has already been a scientifically valid, peer-reviewed study done. “The 2005 study was reviewed by top scientists and was published in the highly regarded scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives."
Edwardson said data released in September from the County of Lambton Community Health Services Department shows that the birth ratios of the Sarnia-Lambton area are similar to those for the rest of Ontario. To that, Plain answers, “For years, we have been asking the County of Lambton for a research program establishing the birth ratios by affected regions as opposed to the blanket wide study where those farthest from the plume are blended into the ratio.” So far, the county has refused, he said.
The findings by Ecojustice Canada reveal pollutants are having significant impacts on the cultural lifeways of the Aanishinaabek, impacting hunting, fishing, medicine gathering, and ceremonial activities.
The Aanishinaabek have reported chemical releases and spills as a primary concern. Their most common concern, however, was fear.
For more information on these reports: Exposing Canada's Chemical Valley