Seattle Post-Intelligencer
December 17, 2005


Rachel's summary:  Among the Chippewa people in Canada, two girls are
born for every boy --a completely unnatural ratio.  Are
hormone-disrupting chemicals responsible?

By Matt Crenson, AP National Writer

AAMJIWNAANG FIRST NATION, Canada -- 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

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?

Lockridge and her neighbors live just across the U.S.-Canada border
from Port Huron, Mich., on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Reserve. For
nearly half a century, their land has been almost completely
surrounded by Canada's largest concentration of petrochemical

Much of their original reserve, founded in 1827, was sold out from
under them via questionable land deals in the 1960s. It is now
occupied by pipelines, factories and row upon row of petroleum storage

The area is so dominated by the industry that it is referred to on
maps and in local parlance as "Chemical Valley."

About two years ago, Suncor Energy -- which already operates a
refinery and petrochemical plant next to the Aamjiwnaang reserve --
proposed adding another factory to the mix, an ethanol plant to be
built on one of the few undeveloped parcels adjoining the community's

Lockridge and other members of the band joined to oppose the plant.
They asked biologist Michael Gilbertson to look at a binder full of
technical information about air, water and soil contamination on the

In a conference call, he reported that the data showed elevated levels
of dioxin, PCBs, pesticides and heavy metals including arsenic,
cadmium, lead and mercury.

Almost as an afterthought, he asked a question: 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.

"I was throwing up thinking about what was in me," said Lockridge, who
is 42. "I cried. And then I got angry."

She got a copy of the band membership list, and tallied the number of
boys and girls born in each year since 1984. Sure enough, the
percentage of boys started dropping below 50 percent around 1993. It
is now approaching 30 percent, with no sign of leveling off.

The finding was significant enough to warrant a paper in Environmental
Health Perspectives, a well-regarded scientific journal. Lockridge,
who has worked as a home health aide and carpenter's assistant, was
listed as an author.

On a recent autumn day, Lockridge stood in the Aamjiwnaang band's
cemetery. The burial ground occupies a gently sloping patch of ground
sandwiched between a petroleum storage tank farm and a low cinder-
block building with half a dozen pipelines running through it.

It is hardly a place where anyone could rest in peace. The building
emits a constant, deafening roar that sounds like a wood-chipper
buzzing through logs one after the next. It is so loud that funeral
ceremonies have to be shouted.

One of the oldest headstones in the cemetery belongs to Lockridge's
great-grandfather, who died at least 50 years before Suncor Energy
erected a giant flare tower not 100 yards away.

Lockridge was talking about how security guards watch and occasionally
film her as she pulls weeds around her family's plots. Suddenly she
stopped short.

"Okay," she said. "You getting that smell right now?"

Traveling around the 3,250-acre Aamjiwnaang reserve is a stimulating
olfactory experience. There are tangy smells, sweet smells and acrid
odors that sting the nose. There is the tarry scent of unrefined
petroleum, and the rotten-eggs stench of sulfur.

There's also a "fart" smell, Lockridge said, a "stink-feet" smell and
something that "smells like what the dentist puts on a Q-Tip before he
gives you the needle."

Whenever she detects a distinctive odor somewhere on the reserve, she
makes a note of it and records it on a calendar at home.

Lockridge's discovery of a sudden shift in sex ratio suggests a new
pollutant came into the Aamjiwnaang's environment during the early
1990s. And the fact that the decrease is continuing suggests that
whatever that pollutant is, it is still around.

So far, nobody recalls anything new coming on the scene during the
early '90s. And the levels of likely suspects such as PCBs and mercury
have actually decreased in the past decade.

The sex ratio of newborn babies is normally within a hair's breadth of
50-50, with slightly more boys born than girls. There are very few
documented cases of an imbalance as extreme as the one of the
Aamjiwnaang reserve.

During the late 1950s, a severe outbreak of mercury poisoning in
Minamata, Japan, caused a decrease in the percentage of male births.
Mercury and other heavy metals cause the preferential miscarriage of
male fetuses simply because their brains are more vulnerable during
development compared to those of females.

Mercury is unlikely to be causing the shortage of boys on the
Aamjiwnaang reserve, however. Though levels of the metal are elevated
on the reserve, the Aamjiwnaang are exposed to much less mercury today
than they were 50 years ago. Back then, poor band members would go to
open toxic waste dumps and extract mercury from the soil by adding
water to it, then sell the metal on the black market.

The Aamjiwnaang and their scientific advisers believe it is more
likely that endocrine disrupters are to blame. 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

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.

In 1976, a dioxin release at a factory in Seveso, Italy, sickened at
least 2,000 people. Years later, scientists found that men who were
exposed to the highest dioxin levels were more likely to have
daughters than sons. Among men who were younger than 19 years old at
the time of the accident, the ratio was the same as it is today on the
Aamjiwnaang reserve -- two-to-one.

At lower doses, the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals are
subtle and have been harder to document.

"Not a lot is known, actually," said Marc Weisskopf, a research
associate at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In a 2003 study, he and several colleagues found that mothers who
consumed large amounts of PCB-contaminated fish caught in the Great
Lakes were more likely to have girls.

It is extremely difficult to say whether background doses of endocrine
disrupters are having any effect on the general population. Scientists
in many industrialized countries -- including the United States and
Canada -- have documented a subtle decline in the male-to-female ratio
since World War II. But it has been a matter of controversy whether
the decrease is due to industrial chemicals or lifestyle factors and
medical advances, which can also tinker with the sex ratio.

There is little doubt that endocrine-disrupting pollutants are
affecting the sexual development of wildlife right where the
Aamjiwnaang live. In Lake St. Clair, not 30 miles from their reserve,
fish are swimming around with both male and female gonads. The
condition, known as intersex, is caused when a young fish that is
genetically male is exposed to chemicals such as the fertilizer
atrazine, which causes female gonads to develop by acting like the
hormone estrogen.

The phenomenon has been documented all over the southern Great Lakes -
not just in fish, but in birds and amphibians as well.

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."

Some people have suggested that the whole band should simply pick up
and leave the reserve for a less contaminated place. But Plain wants
to stay and fight.

Petitions and demonstrations against the Suncor ethanol plant
eventually convinced the company to choose a location about 10 miles
south of the reserve for the new facility. A Suncor spokesman said
that community opposition was one of several factors that led to the

Now Plain wants to use the band's veto power over new pipelines
crossing the reserve as a bargaining chip: For example, in return for
allowing a right-of-way, the Aamjiwnaang would require establishment
of a fund to set up a network of air monitoring stations. The money
could also be used to clean up hazardous waste sites on the reserve,
or other environmental projects.

"The band doesn't have the money for that type of stuff," said Plain,
who runs his own medical supply company. "If we have a million dollars
we can hire some pretty good experts."

Alan Joseph is not sure he can wait.

He has five children -- a boy and four girls. All suffer from asthma;
the eldest girl has liver problems.

He used to catch crawfish in Talfourd Creek and fish in the St. Clair
River, less than a quarter mile from his house. Now, if he wants to go
fishing, he drives 25 miles up the shore of Lake Huron.

"I really want to move," he said.