Natives see son shortage in 'Chemical Valley'

Published: Sunday, Dec. 18 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

Alan Joseph talks with his children Joselyn, 8, center, and Shyanna, 5, at their home on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Reserve in Canada. All Joseph's children suffer from asthma; the eldest girl has liver problems.

Carlos Osorio, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

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 windows."

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 manufacturing.

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 tanks.

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 property.

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 reserve.

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?

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