There’s something is in the air at the Aamjiwnaang First Nations reserve near Sarnia, Ontario. But it’s not just in the air. It’s also in the water, the soil, and in the residents themselves: alarming levels of toxic chemicals, believed to be behind the area’s skewed birth ratios. In Aamjiwnaang, two girls are born for every boy.
On June 1, Environmental Defence released Polluted Children, Toxic Nation, yet another study confirming that in the towns of Ontario’s notorious “Chemical Valley,” people are polluted.
Chemical Valley is the ominous nickname for the sprawling industrial complex that makes up Canada’s largest concentration of petrochemical manufacturing plants–40 percent of all such facilities in the country. The Aamjiwnaang (pronounced ham-jew-nong ) reserve, near Sarnia, sits squarely in the heart of the valley, where smokestacks from companies such Dow, Suncor, Shell, Imperial Oil, Nova, LanXess (Bayer), and Royal Polymer define the landscape.
The Aamjiwnaang reserve was established in 1827. In the 1960’s, the petrochemical companies started to move in, taking over most of the band’s land. Today, the reserve sits on 3,250 acres, a fraction of its original size, and is home to approximately 850 Chippewa people. The community is literally enclosed by heavy industry on three sides with the polluted St. Claire River to the west of it. The chemical stench in the air is palpable.
The Toxic Nation researchers tested children and parents in five families from across Canada for a broad range of commonly used toxic chemicals such as stain repellents, flame retardants, mercury, lead, DDT and PCBs. Three generations of the Plain family from the Aamjiwnaang community were among them.
Wilson Plain Sr., 66, was found to have 32 chemicals in him, including the study’s highest concentrations of PFOS (Perfluorooctane Sulfonate), PCBs and organochlorine pesticides. His son, Wilson Jr., 44, registered 36 chemicals, the highest total number, and his granddaughter Jessie, 14, contained 20 chemicals.
“All of us are contaminated,” said Wilson Plain Sr. “What’s most shocking is my granddaughter, who has chemicals in her body that were banned before she was even born. Canadians have the right not to be polluted by these chemicals.”
A History of Pollution Problems
The findings were disturbing but not totally surprising to Ron Plain, Chair of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Environment Committee. “Our own studies have found heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, in the sediment throughout our community. It is worrisome to know that they are polluting our families.”
The St. Claire River, which forms the border with Port Huron, Michigan, was identified as an “area of concern” in the mid-1980s as part of a bilateral effort to clean up the Great Lakes.
But the problems didn’t go away.
During the nearly 20 years of clean-up efforts an additional 800 toxic spills – from both sides of the border – occurred in the river, says environmental watchdog Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. And in a recent Ontario provincial survey of local companies, virtually none were found to comply with the laws regarding spills.
And that’s not all – a Pollution Watch report released last year named three Chemical Valley facilities in the Top 10 Ontario Respiratory Polluters list.
Severely Skewed Birth Ratios
Chemical contamination has long been a source of anxiety in the Aamjiwnaang community.
Last summer, a study confirmed what was already obvious to everyone on the reserve: the number of girls there was far greater than the number of boys. A community participatory research project with the University of Ottawa found that between 1993 and 2003, only 41.2 percent of babies born on the reserve were male. The normal sex ratio for humans is roughly 105 males born for every 100 females (about 51.2 percent males). This pattern held true for Aamjiwnaang babies prior to the 1990s, but then something changed. Since 1993 girl births have been steadily outnumbering boy births and the gap continues to widen.
Today, two girls are born for every one boy.
The big question, of course, is why? The leading theory is that the skewed birth ratios are due to Aamjiwnaang’s industrial neighbours.
The Toxic Nation study concludes that “although there are several potential factors that could be contributing to the observed decrease in sex ratio of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, the close proximity of this community to a large aggregation of industries and potential exposures to compounds that may influence sex ratios warrants further assessment into the types of chemical exposures for this population.”
The compounds the report refers to are generally known as “endocrine disruptors.” Everything that shapes who we become–including our nervous and immune system development, organ and tissue growth, metabolism, intelligence, behaviour, and sexuality–is governed by the body’s endocrine system. It develops mostly during gestation and early childhood.
The endocrine system is made up of glands that deploy hormones, or chemical “messengers,” to distant body parts telling them how to develop in the future. In this dizzying delivery system, each message must be sent at precisely the right time and must be received by a single specific target cell. Once the bond occurs, a chemical reaction is triggered and the fate of the cell is sealed. Although years may pass before the effects are seen, our bodies and minds are nonetheless programmed during these narrow windows of time in early life.
Many of the synthetic chemicals that have been unleashed into the environment since World War II – such as pesticides, dioxin, PCBs, lead, mercury, styrene, household cleaners, cosmetics, PVC plastics in plastic wrap, water pipes, and others – are imitating the body’s natural hormones by bonding with the receptor cells or blocking messages altogether. And they are wreaking all manner of biological havoc.
One result is altered birth ratios. It’s not until the 56th day of gestation that the Y-chromosome kicks into action by telling the so far unisex sex gland to develop testicles. From here, the development of the male body and brain depends upon the testes issuing the right hormonal cues at the right time. One miscue and everything is altered.
Twenty-three of the chemicals found in the bodies of participants in the Toxic Nation study are known endocrine disruptors. Many of the pollutants produced in Chemical Valley also appear on the endocrine disruptors list. The theory is that these chemicals mimic, or interfere with, the hormones that produce male gender.
This theory might also explain a variety of other abnormalities seen in the community, such as deformed puppies and kittens, fish in Lake St. Claire with both male and female reproductive organs, and woman experiencing multiple miscarriages. And on top of that, one in four school children on the reserve experiences developmental delays. All of these problems could be explained by endocrine interference.
A community meeting was held in Aamjiwnaang on Tuesday to discuss the Toxic Nation findings. While the problems run deep, many say the causes are clear. As one meeting participant said:
“How are we going to stop the technology? We are supposed to live with the environment in harmony. The technology is growing fast; it also brought pollution to earth. The pollution not only affects human beings but also affects fish life, bird life… How are we going to stop it?”
Plain says the community of Aamjiwnaang is determined to do something about the pollution they believe is causing chemical pollution in their bodies.
“The results of [the Toxic Nation] study have confirmed that this is not an Aamjiwnaang issue, nor is it a Chemical Valley issue, but it is an issue of national proportions.”