Ottawa (Canada) Citizen

September 8, 2005


Two girls for every boy born near chemical plants

Tom Spears, The Ottawa Citizen

Doctors were investigating the effects of pollution on an Ontario
Chippewa community when some band members raised an odd point: Their
community had enough girls for three softball teams, but only one
boys' team.

They were worried about the lack of baby boys.

From that unexpected observation, health researchers from Ottawa and
Sarnia tracked down a shocking fact: Today, nearly two baby girls are
born for every baby boy at Aamjiwnaang First Nation, near Sarnia.

Pollution from the petrochemical factories of nearby Chemical Valley
is the likely -- though still unproven -- cause, the team argues. It's
been known for more than a decade that many industrial pollutants
mimic the action of the female sex hormone estrogen, and these can
upset the reproductive systems of wildlife and humans alike.

"You can't be anywhere on their land and not see a score of these
things (chemical plants)," says Jim Brophy, director of the
Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers, a Sarnia clinic that
focuses on health effects of industrial chemicals and asbestos.

A University of Ottawa medical student, Constanze Mackenzie, started
counting baby boys and baby girls born on the reserve since 1984.

Until the early 1990s, an average of 54 per cent of the babies were
male -- very close to the Canadian average of 51.2 per cent, she

"But over the past 10 years that dropped to 41-per-cent male, and in
the past five years it averaged 35-per-cent male," she said.

The final years of the study, from 1999 and 2003, saw 86 baby girls
and only 46 boys born.

"We see, holy smokes, in the past 10 years we've got this huge drop"
in male births, Mr. Brophy said. He noted it hasn't shown signs of
levelling out. "We don't know what all the implications are for human

The study appears in a science journal, Environmental Health

There's no evidence that these babies have any unusual health
problems. But the researchers know that in wildlife, upsetting the
reproductive system with pollutants can cause long-term health
problems in the next generation, such as behavioural problems,
infertility and cancer.

The reserve's soil is full of toxic metals such as arsenic, lead,
chromium, and especially mercury, says Mr. Brophy, who has a PhD in
occupational and environmental health. It's also close to factories
that have air emissions such as benzene and its compounds.

Mr. Brophy said other communities downwind of Chemical Valley --
places south and east such as Corunna and Chatham -- appear on the
basis of preliminary analysis of Statistics Canada data to have more
baby girls than boys as well. It's "nothing as significant as the
First Nations, but it's in every single one of them," he said.

To the north, away from prevailing winds, there are more boys born,
Mr. Brophy said. "These are all puzzle pieces. We have no causal
connection," he added. "But these are all parts of a larger picture."

"It's difficult to prove cause and effect in science," adds Ms.
Mackenzie, "but we feel there's enough evidence here that there should
be some concern."

No one has done blood tests in search of pollutants in Aamjiwnaang
yet. Ms. Mackenzie said she hopes her work will be the first stage of
a longer investigation.